Mars Rover Engineer builds career from JPL internship – Meet JPL interns


It may sound caricatural, but the face of NASA's next robot rover is a serious affair for Jeff Carlson. A former trainee at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Carlson is now part of the JPL team tasked with assembling and testing the "head" and "neck" (officially called the remote sensing mast). robot March 2020. Carlson jokes that his job is a bit like making and following instructions for assembling IKEA furniture, that is, if the furniture goes to another planet without the possibility of returning for parts. . With five cameras that will do everything from guiding to mobile recording, recording ambient sounds and blasting laser objects to study their chemical composition, the mast will play a key role in the world. purpose of the mission to find evidence of ancient microbial life. Returning JPL trainee, Evan Kramer, met Carlson to learn more about his role in preparing the rover for his planned debut on Mars in February 2021 and on the summer internship that led Carlson to his position current.

What are you doing at JPL?

I am a mechanical engineer working on the remote sensing mast for March 2020, [NASA’s next Mars rover]. The remote sensing mast is the "neck" and "head" of the mobile. Scientifically, it is our vision system to see off and do remote sensing. So, instead of using the drill on the rover to study something close up, the mast uses spectroscopy and lasers to visualize distant elements and read their chemical composition.

Four engineers in white garmets stand behind the rover while another stands in front, holding a smartphone to take a selfie

Members of NASA's Mars 2020 project (including Carlson, right) take a moment to capture a selfie after attaching the remote sensing mast to the March 2020 rover. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech | + Enlarge the image

The mast has a lot of instruments on it. On the head, there are five cameras. Two of them are for navigation, [NavCams]. They will guide the rover beyond obstacles, for example. Then there are two Mastcam-Zs. On the Curiosity rover, they are called Mastcams. On March 2020, they call Mastcam-Zs because they have zooms on them. These cameras will take amazing panoramic photographs that we can learn a lot. Then we have SuperCam, which is the big "eyeball". SuperCam fires a laser that incinerates or removes a distant target. During this ablation, the camera takes a very fast photo. The color of the flash that the laser creates on the target will be specific to the chemical composition of the target. SuperCam also has a microphone, which is new for this mission. This will allow us to hear the wind and the movements of gravel and rocks. Then, on the neck of the remote sensing mast, we have two wind sensors, at 90 degrees one to the other. One of them is a deployable dam, which can extend far enough from the neck and give us measurements of the direction and speed of the wind. There are also three air temperature sensors, a humidity sensor and a thermal infrared sensor. Together they form a suite of instruments known as MEDA.

What is your role in using all these components?

Much of my time has been devoted to the role of wise engineer, which I share with another person. It is essentially the engineer responsible for the delivery of the equipment to the spacecraft. This includes everything you need to do to make sure you have all the nuts and bolts needed to assemble (physically count, weigh and save all parts information and inspection reports), as well as that write the procedures to build everything. So this looks like the document you get with your IKEA furniture that shows how to assemble the parts. Our team is quite small, so usually, once we have developed these procedures, we go to the clean room lab, take the parts and assemble them. A typical day, I will usually do a little bit of it. And then, I provide supervision to make sure everything goes as planned.

See NASA's next Mars rover literally meeting in a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

You started working at JPL as a trainee in the summer of 2015. What was this experience?

When I was a trainee, I was working on a project that I had no idea until I became a trainee, and now I can not help thinking about it. . It's called Starshade, and it's a sunflower shaped device the size of a baseball diamond. It is designed to fly far into the sky and remove light from a distant star so that a space telescope can get a direct image of the planets orbiting the star. Using the same type of spectroscopy as in the March 2020 SuperCam, scientists can then characterize the elements present in the atmosphere of these planets, called exoplanets. If we could do that, it would be revolutionary because it could tell us if a distant planet is habitable or perhaps even already inhabited.

On which part of Starshade did you work?

Starshade is composed of two systems and I worked on both. There is a deployable farmhouse, which is a large hoop that forms the circumference of the giant sunflower shape. This must fit in a rocket to climb into space. So we had to find a way to incorporate a cylinder four meters in diameter to the size of a baseball diamond. I was working on the construction and design of this lattice structure. The other party made the shape of the sunflower so that it removes starlight, which corresponds to the field of origami. So I was also working with origami specialists to understand how to connect this foldable object to the lattice structure.

What brought you to JPL for your internship?

The first time I heard about JPL was when members of the Curiosity robot mission team visited my campus at the University of Colorado at Boulder. They talked about the process of entry, descent and landing of the mission, and it was the first time I really heard about this process.

Seeing it [“7 Minutes of Terror”] First time video and hearing the impossibility of trying to land a SUV sized vehicle on another planet, I thought to myself: "It's the coolest thing I've ever seen. I've never heard, I have to be part of it, sort of. " I did not even know how useful I could be. I just knew it was where I wanted to be.

Which moments or memories of your internship are the most memorable?

We were a bit of a big team of trainees. I think we were 13 on the Starshade project. There were those days when we were assembling models of Starshade. These are enormous carbon fiber structures that must all be linked together by epoxy that you eject syringes, and it's very convenient. So we were all 13 in a kind of assembly line. At the end of the course, we were competing to see who could do it better, faster, cleaner and everything else. And for me, it was so much fun. I have learned a lot about how to work effectively in a team. This is certainly one of the things that makes JPL a great place. At JPL, nobody would have accomplished what he had done without being part of an incredible team. It's really the root of our success.

Jeff Carlson stands in the center of a folded metal structure

Carlson poses for a photo in the center of the big hoop that forms the outline of Starshade 's drawing during his summer internship at JPL in 2015. Image provided by Jeff Carlson | + Enlarge the image

How did your internship shape your career path and lead to what you do now?

When I started my internship, I thought what I wanted to do was mainly from CAD, [computer-aided design], work, sitting in front of a computer 3D modeling and drawing. The internship taught me the joys of tinkering with objects that could go into space. There is so much to think about, from launching environments to micro-meteorites to ridiculous temperatures and pressures. It changes the way you think about a problem to be on the formulation side, to assemble the material. I did not even know it was a career option for me until I started doing it. My JPL internship really opened my eyes. I did not even know that my current role existed.

Has your internship also allowed you to meet people who might become your managers?

Yes. I think that one thing that makes JPL really great is that if a trainee has a very good idea, it does not matter that he is a student. They will be listened to with the same frankness as if the chief engineer had the same idea. Someone described JPL as a meritocracy, and I think more than any other place I've been to, that's true. I saw it myself. Even as a full-time beginner engineer, there are times when I think, "Who am I to suggest that? I do not have as much experience as all these other people. But I say it because culture supports it. And then it affects the way the mission is designed. It changes something important.

Did you have your own trainees? If so, what is your mentoring style? What do you hope they extract from the experience?

Yes, I had my own trainees. I tried to imitate my mentors from when I was trainee. Looking back, they are part of what made my success – to realize that I am smart enough to make decisions. Coming from school, I think trainees have this idea that they have to tell them what to do because it's like a school job. But for some of the tasks we have here, the tasks A, B and C needed to do a job are not all there are. It is sometimes up to the trainee to determine the way forward. I try to give my trainees enough freedom to make these kinds of decisions. I think the validation you get from seeing an idea come to fruition is going to make you a much better engineer than if you were simply asked to do a task and run it.

What is your advice for those who wish to do an internship or work at JPL one day?

One of the things that has made me hard to work here, is to see myself as a student, to hang out with adults or to see me a little under my colleagues. So, for a trainee at a meeting with other engineers, do not be afraid to speak, trust the education you received.

Finally, I hear you write poetry and draw in your free time. Have your experiences at JPL influenced your creative side or vice versa?

Being here has opened my eyes to many things. Since I have been working here, I have been more open to allowing others' ideas and points of view to influence mine. In addition, JPL encourages creativity. Caltech [which manages JPL for NASA] has an art exhibition every year. I put some pieces there. I think it's great to mix engineering and art. There is also a talent show at JPL every year. I sing in the show with a little looper pedal. JPL therefore encourages and confirms, in my mind, that there is no need to be an engineer. It's a good place to say we can do this and that.

Explore more

Explore JPL's summer and annual internship programs and apply at the following address:

The laboratory's STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. By expanding the reach of NASA's STEM Engagement Office, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of space scientists, engineers, technologists, and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the benefits of learning to learners of all ages. passion for NASA's missions and science.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Trainees, University, Careers, Robotics, Mars, Rover, March 2020, Starshade

  • Evan Kramer

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