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NASA’s Ann Devereaux on the upcoming Mars 2020 Rover and past missions

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

The biggest trick with Mars landings, and moon, too, to some extent, is the communication part, she says.

Ann Devereaux was in the frontline of Nasa’s mission team that landed the Curiosity rover on Mars in September 2012. As the manager for spacecraft system engineering at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the deputy lead for Entry, Descent, and Landing, she is again in the thick of its advanced sequel, the Mars 2020 Rover. The mission is the first of a trilogy to bring Martian samples to Earth for the first time.

Devereaux shared some of the details of the next trip to the red planet during her visit to Bengaluru as a goodwill speaker for the U.S. Department of State. Edited excerpts:

As a Mars radios expert earlier, what are your views on getting the Indian moon lander Vikram to `talk’ again? Isro (Indian Space Research Organisation) lost contact with the lander during the last moments of its descent on September 7.

If Vikram talks, the DSN (Deep Space Network, Nasa’s planetary mission antennas supporting Chandrayaan-2) can definitely hear it. But Vikram has to be able to talk. Or Isro has to be able to make it talk. Vikram had a bad day but the important thing would be if Isro can figure out why and make corrections. I expect the next attempt will have every chance at success and hopefully it will be soon.

How did Nasa handle its own failures with earlier Mars missions?

I have been at the JPL for a long time and have seen several times when we did not make it. We had a couple of mishaps in the late 1990s. My very first mission was the Mars Observer in September 1992. People were crushed when it didn’t make it. In the U.S., they put pictures of missing children on milk cartons. Someone in the cafeteria had put the picture of the Mars Observer on a milk carton. It was gallows humour. You want to believe it is going to get better.

The Mars Climate Orbiter (December 1998) had a problem converting metric (SI) to imperial units. And then it was the Mars Polar Lander (January 1999), which probably had engineering flaws. It is not a matter of luck and we do learn. People tried to figure out why the Polar Lander crashed and how to make it better. We used the designs and spare parts of the Observer and the Polar Lander in very successful missions that came later. We learnt our lesson and figured out what was robust and came back with it.

You were part of the hugely popular and exciting Curiosity mission and are now a lead in the forthcoming Mars 2020 Rover. What is this mission about and how is it different from Curiosity?

Mars 2020 Rover is to be the first of three missions of the Mars Sample Return project. Later, there could be two more missions — one to pick up samples from the surface of Mars and another to get them up into a Mars orbit, which is the tricky part. We know how to move things around the solar system but getting things up from the surface of Mars is not something we have done before.

The Mars 2020 Rover is very similar to the Curiosity Rover with pretty much the same technique, design, spare parts, cruise to Mars, descent, the ‘egg’ stage, etc. But it has necessitated a few changes because this mission has to do sample collection as opposed to sample analysis. Craters were challenging for Curiosity. For the 2020 mission we made some tweaks — it will go down in a more challenging site at the Jezero Crater with more hazards on the ground. There will be potholes, cliffs, etc. The new thing in it is that it has a down-looking camera with a computer behind it, looking at the ground and spotting good places to land. It will go for the safest landing it can get.

What happens when the samples are collected?

The rover must fill test tubes with material from different locations. The second mission will have a little rover that will fetch the samples and use the rocket on it to [throw] a ball of samples up into a Mars orbit. The third mission will grab the ball of samples and tow it back to Earth. Right now, people are working on a facility that will keep this sample.

What is the status of the mission? How many people are involved?

We will finish the final integration tests at JPL in the next few months and will then ship it to Kennedy Space Center for launch. We’ll spend the next six months there and are on track for launch in July 2020. We have started the initial architecture for the second and the third missions. We are partnering ESA (European Space Agency) to build part of the equipment, and are talking to industry. The preliminary idea for the next phase is 2026.

The next two will probably go about the same time, and the third one will be a communication relay for the second. When we have an opportunity to send an orbiter to Mars we would like it to have a relay radio, basically for continuity and the lander community. Curiosity now relays from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN (2013).

About 600 people at JPL are working on it now. A lot of pieces were built in other places. Combined, about 1,000 people may have contributed to Curiosity.

What, according to you, are the important elements of a successful landing, be it on the moon or Mars?

The biggest trick with Mars landings, and moon, too, to some extent, is the communication part. We can’t use a joystick as I can’t see it or control it. To be successful, we have to imagine the sequence of events, have all the smarts on board ahead of time to control the landing, including for contingencies. That’s the big challenge.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 12:02:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/nasas-ann-devereaux-on-the-upcoming-mars-2020-rover-and-past-missions/article29799341.ece

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