Rocket science and space exploration or, to be more specific, life on mars have always held mankind’s fascination.
When Anita Sengupta, a member of the team that manned ‘Curiosity’, NASA’s most ambitious rover that made a dramatic entry into Mars’ atmosphere last year, arrived at IIT - Madras on Tuesday, students of the institute and others made sure she got a full audience.
Dr. Sengupta, an expert in ‘entry, descent and landing’ (EDL) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, talked at length about designing a parachute that could sustain the weight and size of Curiosity, described as a rover of “monster truck” proportions. Dr. Sengupta designs systems that help to land rovers and robots on other planets.
In August last year the car-sized rover made a jittery landing on the planet. The video of the event, dubbed ‘Seven minutes of Terror,’ was played at the talk.
Dr. Sengupta said the rover, equipped with sophisticated space exploration instruments, was now moving slowly and making unique measurements of the soil, rocks and atmosphere of Mars. She showed evidence of icecaps and flowing water that seemed to suggest the life potentiality of Mars.
Dr. Sengupta, who answered basic questions on Mars, said, the planet’s surface density was one percent that of Earth’s and the gravity, one-third of Earth’s. “But since the atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s, we need to use different type of parachutes and rockets to give a softer landing,” she said.
Considering most parachutes in the sixties and seventies had failed, the challenge was to develop an effective parachute that was large enough to handle the atmospheric constraints, she said. “You have to think about all the different aspects of the parachute descent, all the things that could go wrong. The problem is the full testing can be done only at the time of landing. Everything has to be perfect, otherwise the game is over,” she said.
Dr. Sengupta’s first-of-its-kind, colossal parachute design performed flawlessly in 2011.
The 35-year-old engineer is on a two-week -tour of Indian cities, interacting with scientists and students. NASA, which has made seven successful landings on Mars, had many projects in the pipeline, she said. “But landing a rover with incredible precision on the surface of Mars is my favourite, the highlight of my career,” she said.