When NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on the surface of Mars on Thursday after a seven-month journey, a Taiwan-born engineer was preparing to guide its first movements on the Red Planet.
Yen Cheng (嚴正), a 61-year-old graduate of National Tsing Hua University and a 20-year veteran at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is taking part in his fourth Mars exploration mission with the agency’s Robot Interfaces and Visualization team, this time as its leader.
Yen in a media interview described his expectations for the next few months as “living on Earth in Mars time.”
As nighttime temperatures on Mars can drop to minus-80°C, the rover must spend those periods heating itself, while conducting research during the day, he said.
Yen and his team would use the downtime to prepare the code that would guide the rover’s movements the next day, he said.
However, as a Martian day is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, the time difference results in a shifting work schedule.
“Today my shift started at 2pm. Next week it will start at 10pm,” Yen said.
He said that piloting the 1-tonne rover is nothing like driving a remote-controlled vehicle, despite expectations to the contrary.
As there is no GPS on Mars, Yen and his team had to design custom navigation software for the rover, using technologies such as 3D visualization and virtual and augmented reality.
These efforts, multiplied across other teams contributing to the mission, mean that every meter the rover covers on Mars is the product of “decades of work by countless people,” he said.
One of the main missions of the Perseverance rover is to search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet.
Asked if NASA has guidelines on what to do if the rover encounters alien life, Yen said it did not, but joked that his first instinct would be to take a picture.
However, NASA followed strict procedures to prevent Earth organisms from hitching a ride to Mars, due to their potential to corrupt scientific research and result in a false discovery of life on the Red Planet.
Asked how long it would take before a human mission could reach Mars, Yen said he believes that children born this year could see it during their lifetime, adding that the technology needed to launch a human mission to Mars already exists.
It is just a matter of investing the money, which would be “hundreds of times” more than the US$2.7 billion price tag for the Perseverance mission, he added.
While the goal remains distant, Yen said he was amazed by the progress that has been achieved during his own time at NASA, including the discovery that liquid water once existed on Mars and now searching for evidence of life on the Red Planet.
Yen advised young Taiwanese interested in astronautics not to be afraid to pursue their dreams, citing his own mid-career decision to leave a professorship for an opportunity at NASA.
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