These researchers describe their emotional attachment to their Mars rovers as Artemis pushes NASA forward

Header image: The illustration shows the Opportunity rover traveling on the surface of Mars. The rover explored the Meridiani Planum where it found evidence of ancient liquid water. Opportunity has survived on the Red Planet for almost 15 years.

Three scientists and engineers from ForbesThe 30 under 30 list paved the way for colonies on the Moon and Mars with fueling stations and homemade oxygen — and befriended robots along the way .

By Arianna Johnson

NOTASA rovers are unique among space gadgets. In their search for signs of life on Mars, they themselves acquired human qualities.

Despite their technological sophistication, their chunky tires and robotic arms look like children’s toys. The photos they send back to Earth – of volcanic dust and huge rock mosaics on towering hills – are breathtakingly otherworldly. But rovers also photograph their own tracks in the sand, sometimes looking like they’ve kicked off their shoes to frolic on a Cape Cod beach.

One of the stories told about Mars rovers is good night Oppy, a documentary that delves into the heartfelt story of the Opportunity rover, which premiered Wednesday on Amazon Prime. When the Opportunity rover finally died in June 2018, having run 14 years longer than expected and abandoned only after NASA tried hundreds of times to reestablish contact, it was an emotional time. Tears flowed. It’s safe to say that no one has ever had a lump in their throat from mourning the fiery death of a rocket booster.

“It was [one] most heartbreaking and heartbreaking times where you haven’t given up hope yet that you can contact the mission,” said Kathryn Stack Morgan of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Forbes.

“It was very sad,” said Marianne Gonzalez, Morgan’s colleague. “There was a lot of unrest at JPL. To see all the hard work that [Opportunity’s team] set up and their connection to [Opportunity] getting out was a bit heartbreaking.

There have been two Mars rovers since Opportunity – Curiosity, which landed in August 2012, and Perseverance, which has roamed the Red Planet for almost two years – and each of them has also spoken of close ties to their teams on Earth.

For Hannah Rana, who helped develop a rover for the European Space Agency, the relationship with sophisticated golf carts becomes almost parental. “We start with a very simple model, and then you place this nice little model that you model in space,” she said. Forbes. “You slowly increase the complexity of the design and – this is going to sound weird – you really feel like you’re building your baby.”

Morgan, Gonzalez and Rana are alumni of Forbes’ 30 Under 30. It’s an exciting time at NASA with the inaugural launch Nov. 16 of an Artemis mission that promises to bring people back to the Moon and eventually put them on Mars. Morgan, a 2013 30 Under 30 alum, is a Mars research mission scientist and served as the assistant project scientist on the Mars 2020 Rover mission. Gonzalez, listed in 2022, has been a technologist and systems engineer for NASA’s JPL for seven years. Rana, who was on the 2022 European list, is a research scientist for JPL who focuses on cryogenic particle detectors (which can spot particles at the extremely low temperatures found in space).

In an industry where only one in five attendees identify as female, these three women have carved out a niche for themselves among the elite.

Gonzalez is working on developing an instrument called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. The device is testing a way for future human explorers to make their own oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. Oxygen isn’t just for breathing, it’s also for rocket fuel.

“The idea is that when we go to Mars we are able to self-generate oxygen because the atmosphere of Mars is actually 95% to 96% carbon dioxide,” he said. she stated. Forbes. “If we can just send these units that can produce [oxygen] on Mars, it will save us a lot of time and money.

Gonzalez worked on developing the Perseverance rover, but once it launched in July 2020, she moved on to her next mission. Perseverance was her first mission with NASA, however, she still tracks her progress through the barren Marscape.

“I still have an emotional attachment to the rover even though I’m no longer involved at all,” Gonzalez said.

Luckily for Gonzalez, Perseverance seems to be in good hands with Morgan working closely with the rover. In February 2021, he landed in Mars’ Jezero Crater and became the first to return samples from the planet’s surface to Earth. The crater had an ancient lake, so Perseverance was tasked with finding ancient life that could have thrived there.

Morgan is the second-in-command on the science side of the mission, acting as the glue that binds the designers and engineers together to ensure the teams work well and in harmony.

“We have a science team of about 500 research scientists around the world who are associated with the rover science team,” she said. Forbes. “It’s our job as project scientists to lead this team.”

Although Morgan devotes much of her time to Perseverance, she still keeps an eye out for her first “child rover”, Curiosity. At the time, Curiosity was the largest rover NASA had ever sent into space, and its landing on Mars was part of the 2011 Mars Science Laboratory mission whose job was to find out if the red planet had any conditions. adequate to support small life forms, or microbes. It landed on August 5, 2012 and was scheduled to operate for two Earth years. He has been exploring and returning images for ten years. “This is all on borrowed time now,” Morgan said.

Rana, originally from Luxembourg, worked on the Luna-27 mission during her time at the European Space Agency from 2015 to 2017. Luna-27 is expected to land its own rover on the south pole of the Moon in 2025, and part of the Rana’s work sought to determine what kind of heat the rover would be exposed to. The goal of the mission is to find minerals and ice that can potentially be used for a crewed base that could include resupply stations for travelers to Mars.

The Moon “is kind of a useful checkpoint for Mars missions,” Rana said. Forbes. “We’re really getting into a very futuristic vision of what we can do with space travel.”

The emotional connection between space agency personnel on Earth and rovers in remote locations helps keep people at the center of this futuristic vision. Humanizing opportunity and its successors seems like a very earthy thing to do, and a feeling that Morgan describes when she talks about perseverance.

“There’s a picture of me with my two kids at JPL with the rover in the background before it left for Mars,” she told Forbes. “When I look at this photo, I really think of my two human children and then my rover in the background.”


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