Diversity, one of the reasons perseverance has triumphed: Swati Mohan | India News
Was it a lot of pressure?
Mars and Earth are only in this special configuration about every two years. So if you miss this release window, you have to wait two years before the next one. So yeah, there is a lot of pressure.
What was your role in the draft?
Throughout the development of the project, I was the lead engineer for the guide’s control and navigation subsystem. It’s like being the eyes and ears of the spaceship … My part as a subsystem engineer or operations leader was primarily to be the interface between the guidance navigation and control team and the rest of the project.
Mars 2020: My role is how to be the eyes and ears of the mission, says Swati Mohan
And the day of the touchdown?
My focus was primarily on the cruise entry descent and landing system. So the parts come apart … Most of that hardware is actually in different pieces on the ground of Mars (now) because during the descent and inbound landing, all of that hardware is thrown away and cut off when its complete need. It’s basically cut and drop. By the time you reach the surface, only the Rover remains.
Were you nervous?
For every call. I had this flowchart pasted on my monitor of what to say if things didn’t go well during landing … I’m glad we didn’t have to go down that path. It was such a relief. (After the touchdown), we celebrated with the team… There was a press conference, after which I went home to my family and hugged them. They were super proud and congratulated me.
Even for those watching from the outside, it was a great moment. Representation matters …
I was one year old when my family moved from India to the United States. I am Indian as well as American. I still have a lot of family in India that we try to visit when we can. My parents raised me with strong Indian values and I feel like they did a good job helping us balance both cultures … I would have to say that, in my perspective, JPL is incredibly diverse. I am not the only woman of color. I am not the only Indian woman or the only woman or non-binary. Everyone respects each other. And I think that’s part of the reason Perseverance was able to succeed … I definitely think diversity helps with innovation.
Mars 2020: My Parents Raised Me With Strong Indian Values, Says Swati Mohan
How has it been different from other projects you have worked on?
When I worked at Cassini (which studied Saturn), I was a junior engineer … It was my first experience with what it means to operate a spacecraft during super critical events that have no margin for error. In GRAIL (sent around the moon), I was on the navigation team … But Mars 2020 was my first mission where I was able to work from the formulation aspect to the operation.
If you had to come up with your own project …
In the case of space telescopes, the larger the telescope, the better resolution and the further you can see space. Basically, we are reaching the limits of the resolution and precision of the telescopes that we have with Hubble and JWST (James Webb Space Telescope, planned to succeed Hubble). One of the technologies of the future is to be able to mount them in orbit autonomously. Think of the way the ISS was put together – they would release one piece and then months later they would release another piece. The pieces would connect to each other. In the same way. you could build a space telescope… That was my doctoral thesis. It would be a dream project.
And what’s next for Mars 2020?
Perseverance is the first mission of the campaign. Your job is to go to different sites and select what scientists believe are the most valuable samples to bring back. It depends on the next mission to land another spaceship. It has to have a real rocket so it can be launched from the surface of Mars into orbit. And then another mission will have to retrieve those samples while they are in space and bring them back to Earth.
Mars 2020: Perseverance rover is just the first mission of the campaign, says Swati Mohan
Why was Jezero (a 49 km crater) chosen for the Perseverance landing?
Jezero crater is super interesting. Scientists believe it was an ancient lake bed. Because it is the size of an ancient river delta that is still preserved, we believe that rocks and geological formations contain signs of life. If there were signs of life anywhere on Mars, Jezero has the best chance of having preserved them.
Mars 2020: Jezero Crater May Have Been Ancient Lake Bed, Says Swati Mohan
And what do we learn then?
If we can understand if there was life on Mars, perhaps we can understand how it evolved on Earth. Understanding how life evolved will give us an idea of whether or not we can expect life in other parts of the solar system. And that really boils down to the fundamental question: are we alone in the universe? Is life unique on Earth here or possibly everywhere, and do we have to keep trying to find it?
Clock Mars 2020: Diversity Helps Innovation at NASA, Says Swati Mohan