UT Grad Part of Mars Curiosity Landing Team

 

You watched the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars Sunday night. Now see the landing through the eyes of Ravi Prakash, BS ’03, a Jet Propulsion Lab engineer who had a hand in the mission.

How would you describe your feelings during the landing?

A few days prior to landing, I felt relatively confident that we had a good chance of landing Curiosity safely on Mars. That confidence was non-existent in the minutes before we entered the Martian atmosphere. I was a nervous wreck during the entire landing, thinking “there’s no way this crazy contraption is going to work!” I got more and more nervous as we got closer to touching down on Mars, even though the data we were getting showed everything was better than we could have hoped for in our wildest dreams. But until we got that final message that the rover had touched down on Mars, I was speechless.

When we finally confirmed that we touched down on Mars, it was the purest joy I had ever experienced. It felt like an out-of-body experience — like a dream — and to my delight, this is all real! It has been an absolute pleasure and honor to work with this particular group of engineers. They are without a doubt the smartest group of people I have had the privilege of working with and learning from, and now we share this bond that will last with us for the rest of our lives.

What was your biggest concern?

I had a few big concerns during the landing. One was whether the parachute — the largest parachute ever built at 70 feet across — would inflate properly. When it did, my concern shifted to the landing radar and whether it would lock onto the ground in time for us to know if we had to fire our rockets. To everyone’s amazement, it locked onto the ground more than five miles above the ground, well above the one mile altitude we needed for it to work. Finally, the entire Sky Crane maneuver, the part that many people think looks the craziest, needed to finish the job. When it did, the entire team was overjoyed.

What is your role now that the rover has landed?

Now that the rover has landed, the team is waiting for the rover to transmit the complete set of data that was produced by the spacecraft during the landing. We then analyze this data to see how the spacecraft performed versus how we thought it was going to perform. This will help us advance our understanding of Mars and make improvements for future missions.

Anticipating Curiosity’s Landing

In the early hours of Aug. 6, 2012 around 12:10 a.m. CDT, a signal emanating from the top of the Martian atmosphere will be hurtling towards Earth. In its 14-minute journey, a room full of anxious scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will await word from the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft carrying Curiosity, the largest rover ever built for another planet. The signal they are about to receive will tell the world that the spacecraft, traveling at 13,000 mph, more than five times as fast as a speeding bullet, is about to enter Mars and attempt a landing that many have described as absolutely insane.

Over the next seven minutes, the larger-than-Apollo spacecraft will fire 76 pyrotechnic devices, deploy the largest parachute ever flown on another planet while traveling almost twice the speed of sound and free-fall from the parachute at more than 200 mph. Finally, the spacecraft will fire retro rockets to come down to a halt on the surface of Mars. These seven minutes have been dubbed the “seven minutes of terror.”

All this will be happening while the engineers and scientists back at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are waiting to receive the signal that tells them the spacecraft is about to enter Mars. Seven minutes after Curiosity has touched down, they’ll get that signal and live the drama that the spacecraft already went through, not knowing what the next seven minutes will entail.

I am one of those engineers who has the opportunity to live this drama first-hand. I graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in aerospace engineering in 2003, continued on to Georgia Tech to get a M.S. in aerospace engineering in 2005, then boarded a plane to California to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’ve been part of the Entry, Descent, and Landing team on the Mars Science Laboratory for over five years, working on a variety of tasks ranging from testing the landing radar in the desert to my current task of being the Systems Engineer for MEDLI — the pressure, temperature and recession sensors on the spacecraft’s heat shield

On landing day, I’ll be in the Entry, Descent, and Landing War Room — a back room where a lot of the team members who worked on the landing phase will be viewing data as it is sent down from the spacecraft. We will radio in to our teammates in Mission Control and will be confirming certain events, such as MSL’s parachute deployment. The folks in Mission Control only have so many eyes, so having this War Room helps us to feed them information, which allows them to make the proper announcements to the rest of the world.

The opportunity to be a part of the team that lands the Curiosity rover on Mars is definitely due in part to the education I received and skills I learned during my time at UT. Having a UT aerospace engineering degree is a big step in becoming successful in the aerospace industry, but the degree is just a stepping stone to the continued education and hard work that is required to succeed.

See Prakash interviewed on KEYE TV here.

This story was first published on the Cockrell School of Engineering’s website. Interview by Maria Arrellaga.

Photo by Christopher Kuhl. Courtesy Cockrell School of Engineering.

 

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