Some 6 million miles from Earth, a NASA spacecraft is hurtling through space at more than 70,000 miles per hour.
Its destination is Mars — the Red Planet, some 42 million miles away — where it will deploy NASA’s Perseverance rover, the latest in a series of state-of-the-art NASA instruments built to search the Red Planet for signs of life, and one that carries the fingerprints of two people with ties to Hilo.
Heather Bottom and Aaron Roth both work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Bottom moved to Hilo last year with her husband, a University of Hawaii professor, while Roth is a 2015 graduate of Waiakea High School.
While the two have never met — hundreds of people across the country worked on Perseverance and its transport vessel, Mars 2020 — the two contributed to systems that both ensure its safe arrival to Mars and the proper transmission of vital mission data back to Earth.
“With a mission this large, there are so many different systems working together,” Bottom said, explaining the many hats she’s worn over her 3 1/2 years on the Perseverance project.
During the launch phase, Bottom said she worked on integrating systems together so they could function in tandem.
“(The launch) was … exciting,” Bottom said. “We’d really practiced the launch like four times before, so the real launch was flawless.”
Of course, the launch — which took place July 30 in Cape Canaveral, Florida — was unusual, she said. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging worldwide, Bottom said there were only about eight people watching the launch in the same room at JPL to comply with social distancing requirements, and much of her work was done from home.
“It was hard,” Bottom said. “After the launch, we all wanted to hug each other, but we couldn’t.”
As the spacecraft heads toward Mars, Bottom is working on operations, which includes executing trajectory correction maneuvers and periodically testing the rover’s instruments during the flight.
“It’s a bit like how if you leave your computer off for a long time, when you turn it back on again, it doesn’t work right,” Bottom said. “We have to keep testing the instruments to make sure they work when (the rover) lands.”
When the rover lands, it will conduct several unprecedented experiments on Mars’ surface. Attached to the rover is a small helicopter — called Ingenuity — that will carry out the first powered flight on Mars.
Perseverance also has a cache where it will store Martian rock samples to be retrieved by a future Mars mission, which, if successful, will be the first to return from Mars back to Earth.
However, Bottom said she is not sure whether she will continue with the project beyond the landing phase. Perseverance has a mission period of one Martian year (about 687 Earth days), after which it will continue to operate independently until it ceases to function.
NASA’s Curiosity rover, which Bottom also worked on, has operated for nearly eight Earth years on Mars’ surface, while the Opportunity rover was seemingly permanently disabled in 2018 after being operational for 15 Earth years.
After the Perseverance rover lands, Roth will have a lot to do. Roth, a JPL software engineer, said he worked on tools to ensure the rover can properly transmit data back to Earth.
“I was actually at home on launch day,” Roth said, adding that, in a normal year, he might have been able to attend the launch, but couldn’t because of the pandemic.
Once the rover touches down on the Red Planet, Roth said he will have to work on “Mars time”: His days will be scheduled around the Martian days, when communication with the rover is possible, albeit with a time delay of between three and 22 minutes between planets.
Because the Martian day is slightly longer than an Earth day, Roth said he will likely have to come into work at extremely early or late hours.
While on Mars time, Roth said, he will be sending and receiving commands to the rover to ensure its images are encoded and transmitting properly.
Roth and Bottom both said they will also continue to work on the Curiosity rover throughout the Perseverance project — the former rover continues to operate and has traveled more than 13 miles since arriving in 2012.
The Perseverance rover is scheduled to reach Mars on Feb. 18, 2021.
Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.