Living on “Mars Time” — to guide the SuperCam superhero

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Vishnu Sridhar, 27, SuperCam Instrument Engineer at NASA Joint Propulsion Lab. Photo: mars.nasa.gov

Since the time the Perseverance rover landed on Mars Feb. 18, 2021, in a historic mission like none before, Vishnu Sridhar lives on ‘Mars time’.

While it sounds confusing, it merely means that Sridhar who is the SuperCam Instrument Engineer for Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, wakes and sleeps according to when the sun rises and sets on Mars.

The day he spoke to News India Times/Desi Talk Feb. 21, Sridhar was scheduled to start work at around 1 p.m. ‘Earth time’ on the Pacific Coast.

But in just two to three weeks, he told News India Times, he will start work late night to analyze data from Perseverance. That’s because time seems to stretch on Mars, each day being 39 minutes longer than the one on Earth so that one year on Mars is equal to 687 days on our planet.

“The hardest part is over with the landing,” Sridhar said. “Now we have to make sure the components are working.”

Now that the Perseverance Rover has landed, Sridhar has to send it commands daily to check all systems are ‘Go.’

Thousands around the world if not millions watched and listened with rapt attention Feb. 18, 2021, to the voice of Swati Mohan, a young Indian-American woman sporting a bindi on her forehead, guiding the Perseverance rover to its landing, an extremely delicate operation by most accounts.

The Mars Perseverance Rover which landed on Mars Feb. 18, 2021. Photo NASA/JPL

Mohan and Sridhar are among several Indian-Americans involved with the Mars 2020 mission poised on the cusp discoveries about our solar system, including facts that could help us make our world a better place. Sridhar says he knows of at least a handful where he works.

“We have an international collaboration with France, Spain, Norway and scientists around the world,” notes Sridhar.

Location! Location! Location!

The Perseverance Rover is positioned on a site that could have ‘bio signatures’ or signs of life because it appears to be a body of water billions of years ago. Plus, Perseverance is capable of collecting samples while it moves around to places never seen before by humans, all of which makes it unique and the first of its kind of mission on Mars.

The latest landing is a source of excitement at the Aviation High School in Queens from where Sridhar graduated. Some of his classmates with whom he remains in touch, he says are “excited about NASA missions because it represents human achievement.”

Born in Chennai and raised in Queens, NYC, Sridhar’s time at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, over the past five years has been dedicated to Mars.

But back in elementary school, he wanted to become a National Geographic photographer and travel the world.

As he grew older his ambitions went beyond the planet he lived on and he ended up studying aerospace engineering, went to a career fair and applied online for a position that brought him to JPL.

A lot of his initial inspiration came from his grandfather who he said built trains and dams in India. “That attracted me to engineering. But I wanted to be different,” and so he landed, no pun intended, on aerospace engineering.

“It’s the same concept. I love to explore the unknown,” Sridhar said.

SuperCam Superhero

In his bio on the JPL site, he says he has “had the privilege to develop cutting-edge technologies to explore worlds beyond our own through systems engineering, instrument design, and operations.”

SuperCam’s mast unit before being installed atop the Perseverance rover’s remote sensing mast. SuperCam fires a laser at rock or soil targets up to 20 feet (7 meters) away, and then analyzes the vaporized rock to reveal the composition. SuperCam’s telescope peers out through a window seen on the right side of the unit, above a microphone (hidden by a red protective cover in this image), which will pick up the sounds of rocks being vaporized by the laser. The electronics are inside the gold-plated box on the left. The end of the laser peeks out from behind the left side of the electronics. Photo Credit: CNES_-L-ROUCAYROL from mars.nasa.gov

The SuperCam on Perseverance which he has been involved with, is a remote-sensing instrument that uses laser spectroscopy to analyze the chemical composition of rocks on the Martian surface.

The SuperCam camera, laser and spectrometers look for organic compounds that could be related to past life on Mars. It can identify the chemical and mineral makeup of targets as small as a pencil point from a distance of more than 20 feet! In effect “doing science from afar,” as NASA characterizes it.

NASA calls the SuperCam the “superhero for making discoveries on Mars!” where each of its three components have superlative powers beyond any previous similar instrument. All this naturally makes Sridhar’s job so critical to future discoveries.

The SuperCam is made up of three components – Mounted on the “head” of the rover’s long-necked mast is a Mast-mounted sensor head; then comes the rover body-mounted electronics; and lastly, the Calibration target that is located on the back of the rover.

Sridhar’s job has followed the trajectory of the engineering phases of SuperCam and the Perseverance rover from initial design to build stage to its launch and cruise through space towards Mars.

Prior to joining the Mars 2020 project, Sridhar was the Spacecraft Systems Engineer and Flight Director for the Opportunity rover on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project.

During Opportunity’s final uplink that attempted to regain communication following the Mars dust storm, he served as the final Flight Director for Opportunity. Additionally, he was a Tactical Uplink Lead and a Tactical Downlink Lead for the MER rover Opportunity team, a mission-operations role, in which he was responsible for leading scientists and engineers in planning activities for a given sol (day) on Mars.

“Through my almost one thousand sols (or Mars days) working on the MER project, I became well versed in operating rovers on Mars. Along this journey I’ve encountered several anomalies and thought-provoking discoveries,” Sridhar says in his biography on mars.nasa.gov.

 

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