There is some confusion about the time that Vandi Verma and I are supposed to connect through Zoom. She’s in Pasadena, California and I’m in New York. I assume that there has been some confusion between the East and the Pacific, but Ms. Verma does not think too much about the time. Instead, she says, “I usually check to see if someone is talking about Earth time or Martian time.”
Ms. Verma has good reason to watch out for time on Mars, which is currently 134 million miles away. She is the chief robot operations engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars on February 18. The sight of NASA scientists cheering their successful descent from their control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory awakened American hearts. But there were “a lot fewer people in the room,” she tells me when the last rover, Curiosity, reached the red planet in 2012: “This time there had to be distance because of the pandemic. So there were people in other rooms and others observing from a distance. “
Ms. Verma and her team are responsible for “everything to do with the mobility of the rover,” including driving and navigation as well as operating the robotic arm that collects rock and core samples on Mars. They also oversee the Ingenuity helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft that weighs 4 pounds and spans 4 feet. “This will,” she tells me, “be the first aircraft attempting powered, controlled flight on another planet.”
Ms. Verma drives some of the perseverance herself, often from home thanks to Covid. Her 18-month-old twins Arjun and Anya are usually home, so they are often on Mars “although sometimes they are difficult to manage”. Fortunately, her husband, a systems engineer at JPL, is helping. Ms. Verma thinks it will be easy for her. Some colleagues have more sophisticated “Earth time counterparts” – significant other and older children who struggle to coexist with cross-planet clocks.
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A Mars day, called Sol, is 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, so the time difference changes every day. “They are trying to synchronize with Mars instead of Earth,” says Ms. Verma. “So we have breakfast at 10 p.m. when it’s breakfast time on Mars and dinner at 5 a.m. when it’s night there.” She tries to avoid “Earthlight when it’s not during the day on Mars because it helps a lot with your circadian rhythm.” Ms. Verma has been driving Mars rovers since 2008, so she has some advice for beginners: “No matter how dark your curtains are, they are never dark enough to keep the light out. So it helps to put aluminum foil on the windows to block the light completely. ”
While too humble to be outspoken, Ms. Verma – who is over 40 years old but refuses to give her exact age – is arguably the most experienced Martian robot in the world. She joined JPL in 2007 shortly after completing a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University and drove Spirit and Opportunity, solar-powered rovers that landed in 2004 in 2008. “I was still an Indian citizen at the time,” she says. but I became an American citizen shortly afterwards. “
Ms. Verma was born near an Indian air base in Halwara, Punjab state, where her father was a pilot who flew Russian-made MiG jets. Her mother, a “traditional housewife who can’t drive a car,” imagined nothing more extraordinary for the young Vandi than a college education and an arranged marriage. (She got the former but met her American husband at work.) But Ms. Verma says she succumbed to tradition at the age of 7 when a family friend gave her a number of books about space for her birthday. “I devoured these books and saw Dr. Spock on TV” – Leonard Nimoy’s “Star Trek” character. “I knew what I wanted in life – to be a space scientist.”
After completing a bachelor’s degree in engineering in India, she joined Carnegie Mellon and did an internship at NASA while doing her PhD. When it became clear that she was going to specialize in robotics, “there really was no other place” than JPL, which on its website describes itself as “humanity’s leading center for exploring places that humans cannot yet reach.”
Ms. Verma worked on the Curiosity rover before it landed on Mars and drove it for five years. More recently, she has also been working on Perseverance, which left Earth on July 30th, 2020. “The pandemic started long before we started,” she says, “and we still had hardware to put together. We had to bring our rover to Cape Canaveral because we started from there. ”
NASA couldn’t afford to miss the launch window as the next one wouldn’t come until 2022. “We are trying to fly at a time when the path the spaceship will take from Earth to Mars is the shortest,” she says. “This happens every two years because of the orbital mechanics.” The entire team had to be at the Cape, so “our entire facility was renewed so we could have the distance we needed and the air filtration” to protect ourselves from the virus. “We just treated it as another hurdle on our way and figured out how to get around it.”
Endurance is “the most sophisticated rover we have ever sent to Mars,” its mission the most ambitious. Spirit and opportunity sought water. Curiosity set out to investigate whether Mars could have been habitable. Perseverance will look for biosignatures of past microbial life and for signs of other, presumably extinct life forms.
There’s more: “One of the most important things we do with this rover,” says Ms. Verma, “is collecting samples from the Martian core.” The rover’s robotic arm drills the surface and collects samples the size of a piece of chalk. These are stored and finally brought to earth. “This is the first time we’ve actually brought samples back from Mars,” she says. “The technologies used to study them won’t even be invented as the samples will return in the early 2030s. That’s the amazing thing about this mission. ”
So endurance is the first stage of a round trip to Mars. In 2026, NASA and the European Space Agency plan to launch a “Fetch Rover” that will retrieve the samples and transport them to a launcher. It will take off from Mars and deliver the samples to an orbiter that was brought into space by the Europeans. The orbiter will then route the material to Earth in the Utah desert. Ms. Verma is keen to be part of this next phase, although she acknowledges that Perseverance’s mission is intensifying: “The real work is just beginning. There are so many scientific discoveries these rovers make every day. “
What are the prospects for a manned mission to Mars? “It will happen,” says Ms. Verma. “There will be people on Mars.” The question is: “Whether there is a desire and how much effort and resources we put into it.” The technology to “make a difference comes when the will is there, and you use scientific corporations to find the solution.”
She believes America is better able than other nations to achieve ambitious goals in space. “It is a land of explorers,” she says, “and of people who only have this urge to cross borders.” We don’t feel comfortable staying still. “She also believes the strength of NASA – and America – is in absorbing the best from anywhere in the world.
She unrolls a list of the colleagues’ countries of origin: “Greece, Russia, India, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Mexico” – she pauses and then continues – “Argentina, France, Italy, Great Britain, Colombia. It’s almost every place I can think of. “Even perseverance is a bit of a mutt. MEDA, the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, which provides meteorological information including data on dust in the air, is from Spain. Rimfax, the radar imager for the Martian underground, was developed in Norway. Moxie, an instrument that generates oxygen from Mars carbon dioxide for future manned missions, comes from a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. SuperCam, the remote microimager that studies the chemistry of rocks and sediments, is French.
What is really American in all of this is the ambition of NASA and the collective ingenuity of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And Ms. Verma herself – a naturalized citizen born nearly 8,000 miles away and who has lived in California for the past 13 years pursuing a Martian dream.
Mr. Varadarajan, a journalist, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Classical Liberal Institute at New York University Law School.
Climate proponents insist it wasn’t the wind. Photo: ZUMA Press
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