In just over a week’s time from now, NASA’s control room will be counting some very anxious minutes as its package to Mars will begin its final descent onto the red planet’s surface. The few nervous minutes will decide if the years of preparation and a near six and a half month journey to Earth’s neighbor will amount to everything that the US space agency planned with its 2020 Mars mission.
The landing of the Mars Preseverance rover and its accompanying mini helicopter ‘Ingenuity’ at Jezero Crater will mark a crucial stage of the mission, mainly because of a combination of problems that the engineers will not be able to do anything about. Everything will be done by the computers onboard.
It is, hence, bound to be an anxious affair for the NASA engineers. The concern will be even more so for the person leading the development of attitude control and the landing system of the Mars 2020 rover – Dr. Swati Mohan.
In a recent tweet, Dr. Mohan counted the days to Perseverance’s landing on the surface of Mars. The date and time will be the moment of truth for Dr. Mohan, who has led the attitude control system of the Mars 2020 mission during operations and was the lead systems engineer throughout development.
This is not her first mission with NASA. Dr. Mohan has previously worked on multiple missions including Cassini (mission to Saturn) and GRAIL (a pair of formation flown spacecraft to the Moon).
But since the beginning of the NASA Mars 2020 project in 2013, she has been associated with the project as the Mars 2020 Guidance, Navigation, and Controls Operations Lead, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Her journey to the position is an interesting one too.
As per her profile at NASA, Swati Mohan emigrated from India to the United States when she was 1 year old. She has raised in Northern Virginia / Washington DC metro area. Dr. Mohan completed her B.S from Cornell University in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering and her M.S. and Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Aeronautics/Astronautics.
Things were not always headed this way for Dr. Mohan though. “Actually, I wanted to be a pediatrician until I was about 16 years old,” she says. “I was always interested in space, but I didn’t really know about opportunities to turn that interest into a job.”
“When I was 16, I took my first physics class. 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.”
Science-fiction helped build this curiosity too. “I remember watching my first episode of “Star Trek” at the age of 9 and seeing the beautiful depictions of the new regions of the universe that they were exploring,” Dr. Mohan recalls. “I remember thinking “I want to do that. I want to find new and beautiful places in the universe.”
Culminating the decades of interest in pushing the boundaries for human understanding of our Universe, Dr. Mohan now acts as the Mars 2020 Guidance, Navigation, and Controls (GN&C) Operations Lead. The GN&C subsystem is the “eyes and ears” of the spacecraft.
The system is meant to figure out how the spacecraft is oriented, and to make sure it is pointed correctly in space (solar arrays to the sun, antenna to Earth). The team further has to maneuver the spacecraft to get it where they want to go.
During entry, descent, and landing on Mars, GN&C will determine the position of the spacecraft and will maneuver it to help it land safely. As operations lead, Dr. Mohan is the primary point of communication between the 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 explains.
So it is no wonder that Dr. Mohan will be anxiously yet proudly looking at a monitor on February 18 as NASA takes its next step towards exploring the red planet.