Alumni, students contribute to NASA’s Perseverance mission on Mars

Media Credit: Courtesy of Mariah Baker and Leila Meshkat

Remote working at NASA's headquarters meant alumni watched live and celebrated their work on NASA's Perseverance rover with friends and family at home.

Alumnus George Tahu watched from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California last month as the Perseverance rover completed its 300-million-mile journey to Mars.

Tahu said he was responsible for setting objectives and constraints needed to keep the project on schedule while also reducing costs and risks of the project. The rover, which weighs more than 2,000 pounds and traveled through space for seven months, landed on the surface of Mars on Feb. 18, culminating nine years of planning and research.

Tahu, the program executive of the Mars 2020 mission who earned two master’s degrees from the University, is one of at least four GW students and alumni working on the newest Mars rover as a part of the project. Others who have worked on the mission said they contributed by collecting meteorological data or serving as engineers.

NASA was unable to open its doors to guests for celebrations of the Mars mission because of COVID-19 restrictions, but Tahu said he was still able to watch the landing live at JPL and celebrate with teammates while respecting safety protocols in person.

“It was really an incredible day to be watching the team, knowing everything they’ve done over the past eight years and all the many obstacles that they overcame,” Tahu said. “Once you hear that touchdown confirmed, everybody’s got their hands up in a victory.”

Tahu said one of the main goals of the Mars 2020 campaign is to begin an effort to return Martian rock samples to Earth, which will be studied for evidence of past microbial life on the planet and to learn how rocky planets like Mars form. He said the Perseverance rover sets the stage for a Mars sample return project, with cooperation from the European Space Agency, that may happen as soon as 2026.

The Perseverance rover’s payload contains a weather tool called the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, which could provide information to help enable future human exploration of Mars, Tahu said.

The Mars 2020 mission first came under consideration after a 2011 survey of the international scientific community found that scientists believed that a deeper analysis of Mars rocks via a sample return program should be a top priority for NASA, Tahu said. NASA announced the project in December 2012, and Tahu has worked on it since then.

Tahu said he hopes Perseverance excites the public for future NASA missions. He said he has been excited to see an outpouring of hope from the public and from officials, including in a video call with President Joe Biden and the Perseverance team at the JPL.

“This is an example of what humanity can do when we come together on a focused goal,” Tahu said. “I certainly hope that what the Perseverance team has done, and in the way they did it, particularly in the environment over the past year, can serve as that inspiring arc and give hope.”

Mariah Baker, a first-year graduate student studying in the Space Policy Institute in the Elliott School of International Affairs and a postdoctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, said she was unable to be at the JPL for the landing of the Perseverance, but she still celebrated at home with her mother and virtually with her teammates.

“It was a crazy day, so I almost didn’t even get a moment to breathe,” Baker said. “There were a lot of different media things going on, different team meetings that were being held virtually and press briefings.”

Baker’s work, which focuses on the wind-driven movement of sand and dust on Mars, began after the landing of the rover. She said the research coming from Perseverance could play a role in future missions because of the potential effects the sand and dust may have on energy and weather on Mars.

Baker said she primarily uses images and meteorological data to study wind-driven processes happening on the surface and will present results to the Perseverance team.

She said her work may also help plan projects that will put humans on Mars, as unpredictable movements of sand or dust have doomed Mars missions in the past, including a dust storm that disabled the Opportunity rover’s ability to recharge its batteries.

“Wind-driven movement of sand and dust plays an important role in Mars’ geology and climate, but it can also pose risks to spacecraft and astronauts on the surface,” Baker said. “The Opportunity rover’s mission came to an end because of a global dust storm, so understanding these events is going to be crucial for keeping instrumentation and human explorers safe during future Mars missions.”

Baker, who has worked on two other Mars rovers with NASA, said she’s taking classes at the Space Policy Institute, which conducts research and offers courses on space policy, to expand her opportunities within the field.

“I’m really more interested in being in the programmatic side of things and being behind the space missions,” Baker said. “I thought that getting a better understanding of other sides of the industry, the economics and all of that, would be useful for moving forward and expanding my understanding of the field as a whole.”

Leila Meshkat, a senior engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an alumna, also worked on the project as an engineer on the mission control system. She said the mission control system “conducts processing, channelization and visualization” of data from the spacecraft before delivering the information to the ground system at NASA sites for analysis and planning.

Meshkat said she developed software with the mission control team and assisted with data management for ground operations.

After finishing her master’s degree in operations research at GW, she said she earned her doctorate in systems engineering from the University of Virginia and began working at JPL in 2002. She said her systems engineering background led to her being assigned to work on the Mars 2020 mission, which she said is “pivotal” for the future of space exploration.

NASA also plans to test new equipment on Mars like the Ingenuity, a small helicopter that NASA will attempt to fly this spring.

“This is the first time ever that there’s going to be a helicopter flying on a different planet, so that’s a technology demonstration to demonstrate that it’s possible to do something like that,” Meshkat said.

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