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An Engineer From Colorado Shares What It’s Like Building NASA’s Next Mars Rover

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Courtesy of Jesse Austin
Jesse Austin, an engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is helping build the Mars 2020 Perserverance rover. The mission is scheduled to launch later this month or early August.

The first time Jesse Austin paid attention to a Mars rover launch was in 2012, while studying electrical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. After hearing the news that Curiosity had landed on the red planet to investigate signs of past life, he was hooked.

“I wanted to be a part of that,” he said.

Now, eight years later, he is.

Austin, 29, helped design motors on NASA’s newest Mars rover, Perseverance. The mission, set to launch as early as July 30 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, is the agency’s largest yet, involving a first-of-its-kind martian helicopter partly designed by Colorado-based Lockheed Martin. Other pieces of equipment, including the Mars 2020 rocket’s heat shield, were also built in the state.

KUNC’s Colorado Edition recently spoke with Austin, a motor control systems engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, about working on Perseverance. Austin hails from Platteville.

 

Below is a condensed version of the interview:

How does it feel being so close to the launch?

It’s nerve-racking to think about and just very exciting. This is the culmination of so many people’s efforts from across the world, really. To just see it getting there and being used for its intended purpose and the excitement that we’re going to see, it’s just, I’m so grateful to be a part of it and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Briefly, what exactly is the mission of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover?

For Mars 2020, we’re sending a large-scale rover to Mars. It’s really an astrobiology mission. We will be using several different instruments to look for different biosignatures. This is evidence of past life that could have existed there. A big piece will be capturing these samples and storing them in tubes on the surface for eventual return to Earth via a future mission.

For those of us living on Earth, why is it important to understand the geology and history on Mars?

I think now more than ever we’re learning how science and technology impacts our day-to-day life. Understanding what life could be elsewhere in the universe is a key question that people have had forever. We’ve always wanted to know more. Part of this mission is hoping to answer “Could life could have survived or developed somewhere else?” I think that will be a major paradigm shift, I think, for the way we view ourselves and our place in the world.

 

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Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
An illustration of the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars. The rover is expected to land on the red planet in February of 2021.

Can you walk us through the mission’s timeline and where it stands right now?

Right now the rover launch vehicle and capsule are in Florida preparing to launch. There will be a several month journey to Mars. The landing date is February 18, 2021. From there, after successfully landing, we’ll begin operations and checking out the instruments and starting to do science.

I understand the rover is planning to land at a site called the Jezero Crater. Can you tell us a little bit more about it and why it was selected?

The landing site of the crater was chosen specifically because we believe it’s a good candidate for having evidence of past life. It’s an ancient river delta. There’s a large lake bed that used to be there with a river inlet and outlet. There’s a large area of exposed material that could allow us access to rocks that may be 3.5 billion years old.

 

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Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
Jezero Crater on Mars is a 28-mile-wide crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. The crater was a possible oasis in its distant past.

Has the pandemic affected this mission?

At JPL we’re all still working from home. We’ve been off-lab since the middle of March. It makes it more challenging to test what we want to. There was a bit of a learning curve. But at this point we’ve overcome those issues and are really hitting our stride and there’s no significant impact to this mission.

What does the next month ahead of the launch look like for you?

A big part of what we’re doing now is preparing to operate the rover. We’ve done the build up. We’ve done the testing. We believe the system to be ready for launch. So part of our advancement is we’re trying to improve the way we operate things. Right now we’re dry-running scenarios for sampling materials, downloading data, taking images, etcetera. We plan to hit the ground running and we have activities planned to test out our instruments and make sure everything arrived safely.

 

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