Friday, May 24, 2024

The rover whisperer


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Indian American aerospace engineer Swati Mohan talks about life on Mars and the Perseverance rover during her recent visit to India, reports Krittika Sharma

The roots of U.S.-India ties in the field of space exploration run deep, beyond strategic partnerships and diplomatic initiatives. The two countries are bound by a strong human bond, which is illustrated by the number of Indian Americans chosen to pursue careers at the  National Aeronautics and Space Administration ( NASA)

“Americans of Indian descent are taking over the country!” observed President Joe Biden while speaking with Indian American aerospace engineer Swati Mohan, whose team successfully landed the ‘Perseverance rover’ on Mars in 2021. Mohan visited New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Puducherry in early 2024 to participate in a series of U.S. State Department-sponsored programs on women in STEM and space exploration.

She played a key role in leading the guidance, navigation and control operations of the Perseverance rover. “Its mission is to seek out the signs of past life on Mars,” says Mohan. “Our team’s job was to design the ‘eyes and ears’ of the mission. We made sure Perseverance could figure out where it was, where it needed to go and how to get there.”

Mohan says the project took roughly seven months, and the rover successfully landed on February 18, 2021, after the 300-million-mile journey. “Since landing, Perseverance has driven around Jezero crater and collected samples that may hold the key to answering the question of whether there was ever life on Mars,” she explains.

NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) are now planning ways to bring the first samples of Mars material back to Earth for detailed study. The Mars Perseverance rover was the first leg of this international, interplanetary relay team.

The rover whisperer

As the entry, descent and landing mission commentator for the Perseverance project, Mohan also translated technical information into layman’s terms in real time. “I was hyper-focused on each step that had to go correctly to lead to a successful landing, carefully listening for the words said by the rest of the team,” she remembers. “It was only after we landed and received the first image showing us the surface of Mars, did it finally register that we were done. We had successfully landed on Mars!”

For her, the greatest gift has been the payoff. “The most exciting part of being an operations lead was working in mission control and seeing the spacecraft work in space,” she says. “I spent many years planning, designing and building the spacecraft. It was very fulfilling to see it work as expected in space.”

From space camp to NASA

Mohan says her interest in space started when she “happened to watch” an episode of the television show, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

From a chance encounter with the famous American science fiction show to leading the Perseverance rover project—her journey is an inspiration to young girls and women planning to pursue a career in science and technology.

As a young kid, Mohan read extensively about planets, star formation and the Big Bang theory. In 11th grade, she met other space enthusiasts and learned about the range of professions in aerospace engineering at Space Camp and began thinking of a career in NASA. “I explored different areas of NASA through various internships, but finally felt at home with the interplanetary exploration focus of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL),” she says. “JPL combined my love of space with the exploration aspect I was first drawn to when I watched Star Trek as a child. Since joining JPL, I have been fortunate to work on missions exploring the Moon, Mars, Saturn and asteroids.”

Upwards and onwards

 Mohan says the Perseverance rover has demonstrated the possibility of future missions to Mars. “Two specific examples are MOXIE and Ingenuity,” she says.  “MOXIE is an instrument that makes oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere. This is critical for eventual human missions to Mars. Ingenuity is a helicopter, the first ever to fly outside of Earth. The demonstration of the helicopter on Mars opens up an entirely new way of exploring planets that could enable a whole new suite of scientific missions,” adds Mohan.

Mohan is also working on the Mars Sample Return program, a proposed mission to return samples from the surface of Mars to Earth. “While Perseverance is the first leg of the Mars Sample Return relay, we are planning for the next leg,” she explains. “The next step is to land a rocket capable of launching the samples off of the surface of Mars. I am working on the Mars Launch System, which will hopefully be the first rocket to ever launch off of the surface of another planet, carrying with it the samples Perseverance collected.”

What about others who want to make a career in science and technology, like her? Build your confidence, advocate for yourself, let people know what you want and show that you are capable of achieving it, she advises. “Above all, keep trying,” she adds. “There are many paths that can lead to the same goal. As long as we keep walking, we can eventually get there.”



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