NASA Perseverance Rover: For the Indian scientist behind rover’s landing on Mars, interest began with Star Trek

By: |
February 25, 2021 3:52 PM

38-year-old Dr Mohan said that she was hyper-aware of the fact that in the last 10 minutes, there would be no script.

She interned at various departments of NASA, from JPL to Goddard Space Centre. (Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA Perseverance Mars Rover: The nail-biting minutes after the Perseverance Rover entered the Martian atmosphere but had not landed yet were much harder for Indian-origin Dr Swati Mohan, because she was tasked with announcing the updates as they came. Dr Swati Mohan is the head of guidance, navigation and control operations at the California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and she worked on the Perseverance Rover for eight years.

In an interaction with IE, 38-year-old Dr Mohan said that she was hyper-aware of the fact that in the last 10 minutes, there would be no script and she had to look at the incoming data and translate that. However, she said that she was on edge because she kept anticipating the next data she would get, hoping that it would be favourable. She also said that the JPL carried out a programme to train the operations team for various scenarios over the previous months, which helped her because she kept telling herself that she had gone through all of the scenarios.

Dr Mohan was the lead of the team that built the Attitude Control System Terrain Relative Navigation technology for Perseverance, using which the rover was able to assess the surface of the Red Planet directly underneath it with the help of a camera and make an informed decision regarding the safest spot to land on in the Jezero Crater.

Swati was born in a traditional family from Karnataka, and she was supported by them when it came to education. Both her parents were engineers in Bengaluru and had shifted to the US 37 years ago. However, initially, Swati had wanted to be a paediatrician. It was an episode of Star Trek though which changed everything for her. The episode, she said, showed scenes of space and she was intrigued by the beauty, and wanted to see that place.

This led to her reading about the Hubble Space Telescope, astrophysics as well as the solar system, with the aspect of engineering sticking with her when she took the first class of Physics in her high school. It was here that a career in aeronautics and astrophysics began bubbling for Swati.

She interned at various departments of NASA, from JPL to Goddard Space Centre, and after her Masters and PhD from MIT, she joined the space agency’s Cassini Mission as a junior engineer. Swati became a part of the Mars Mission in 2013, and she started learning from the people involved in the 2012 Curiosity mission. She was then given the key role in Perseverance’s landing.

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