AN Indian-American scientist has played a key role behind the historic landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on the Martian surface.
Swati Mohan, who led the guidance, navigation, and control operations of the Mars 2020 mission, erupted in cheers on Thursday(18) when the rover landed on Mars after seven months in space.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said Mohan at 3:55 pm Eastern Time (2055 GMT), as mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Mohan, who emigrated from India to the US when she was just one, also confirmed that the rover had survived a particularly tricky plunge through the Martian atmosphere.
Shortly after landing, the rover sent back its first black-and-white images, revealing a rocky field at the landing site in the Jezero Crater, just north of the Red Planet’s equator.
More images, video of the descent and perhaps the first sounds of Mars ever recorded by microphones are expected in the coming hours as the rover relays data to overhead satellites.
Raised in Northern Virginia and Washington DC metro area, Mohan completed her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and her MS and PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in aeronautics/astronautics.
She had worked on the Cassini mission to Saturn and GRAIL — a pair of formation flown spacecraft to the Moon, and has been a mainstay with the Mars 2020 mission since its beginning in 2013.
According to the Mohan, her interest in space was peaked after watching the popular TV show Star Trek when she was 9.
“Seeing the beautiful depictions of the new regions of the universe that they were exploring, I want to do that. I want to find new and beautiful places in the universe. The vastness of space holds so much knowledge that we have only begun to learn,” she said.
“I was lucky enough to have a great teacher, and everything was so understandable and easy. That was when I really considered engineering, as a way to pursue space.”
On the mission, Mohan said during the cruise phase heading towards Mars, their job was to figure out how the spacecraft is oriented, and make sure it is pointed correctly in space.
“As the team’s operations lead, I am the primary point of communication between the guidance, navigation, and control (GN&C) subsystem and the rest of the project. I am responsible for the training of the GN&C team, scheduling the mission control staffing for GN&C, as well as the policies/procedures the GN&C uses in the mission control room,” she said.
Over the coming years, Perseverance will attempt to collect 30 rock and soil samples in sealed tubes, to be eventually sent back to Earth sometime in the 2030s for lab analysis.
It will begin drilling its first samples in summer, and along the way it will deploy new instruments to scan for organic matter, map chemical composition and zap rocks with a laser to study the vapor.
Scientists believe that around 3.5 billion years ago the crater was home to a river that flowed into a deep lake, depositing sediment in a fan-shaped delta.
The rover is only the fifth ever to set its wheels down on Mars. The feat was first accomplished in 1997, and all of them have been American.