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Diversity a reason why Perseverance succeeded: Swati Mohan | India News

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Swati Mohan, the guidance navigation & control lead for Mars 2020 at Nasa, talks to TOI about how diversity helps innovation and what’s next for the mission. Edited excerpts from the conversation:
Was it a lot of pressure?
Mars and Earth are only in this special configuration roughly every two years. So, if you miss this launch window, you have to wait two years before the next one. So yeah, there is a big pressure.
What was your role in the project?
Throughout the development of the project, I was the lead guidance navigation and control subsystem engineer. It is sort of like being the eyes and the ears of the spacecraft… My part as the subsystem engineer or the operations lead was primarily to be the interface between the guidance navigation and control team, and the rest of the project.
And on the day of the touchdown?
My focus was primarily on the cruise entry descent and landing system. So the parts separate… Most of that hardware actually is in different pieces on the ground on Mars (now) because during entry descent and landing, all of that hardware is jettisoned and cut off as its need is completed. It’s basically cut and release. By the time you get to the surface, only the Rover remains.
Were you nervous?
For every single call. I had this flowchart taped onto my monitor of what to say if things didn’t go right during touchdown… I’m just glad we didn’t have to go down that path. It was a big relief. (After the touchdown), we celebrated with the team … There was a press conference, after which I came home to my family and hugged them. They were super proud and congratulated me.
Even for those looking in from the outside, it was a great moment. Representation matters…
I was a year old when my family moved from India to the US. I am Indian as much as I am American. I still have a lot of family in India that we try and visit when we’re able. My parents raised me with strong Indian values and I feel like they did a good job at 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 colour. I am not the only Indian woman or the only woman or non-binary. Everyone is respectful of each other. And I think that’s part of the reason that Perseverance was able to succeed… I definitely think diversity helps with innovation.
How has it been different from other projects you have worked on?
When I worked on Cassini (which studied Saturn), I was a junior engineer… It was my first taste of 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 got to work from the formulation aspect all the way through operation.
If you were to come up with your own project…
For space telescopes, the bigger the telescope, the better resolution and the farther you can see into space. We’re basically coming at the limits of the resolution and accuracy of the telescopes that we have with Hubble and JWST (James Webb Space Telescope, planned to succeed Hubble). One of the future technologies is to be able to assemble them on orbit autonomously. Think of the way the ISS was assembled — they would launch one piece and then, months later, they would launch another piece. The pieces would connect together. In the same way. you could build a space telescope… That was my PhD thesis. It would be a dream project.
And what’s next for Mars 2020?
Perseverance is the first mission of the campaign. Its job is to go to different sites and select what scientists think are the most valuable samples to bring back. It’s up to the next mission to land another spacecraft. It has to have an actual rocket so it can be launched off the surface of Mars into orbit. And then, yet another mission will have to retrieve those samples while they are in space and bring them back to Earth.
Why was Jezero (a 49-km crater) chosen for Perseverance touchdown?
Jezero Crater is super interesting. Scientists believe that it was an ancient lake bed. Because it has the size of an ancient river delta that’s still preserved, we believe the rocks and geologic formations there contain signs of life. If there were signs of life anywhere on Mars, Jezero has the best possibility of having preserved those.
And what do we learn then?
If we can understand whether there was life on Mars, we can maybe understand how it evolved on Earth. Understanding how life evolved will give us an idea of whether or not we can expect life elsewhere in the solar system. And that really comes down to the fundamental question — are we alone in the universe? Is life unique to Earth here or is it possibly everywhere, and we just have to keep trying to find it?

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