Indian-American Swati Mohan Heads Mars Landing Mission

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Indian-American Swati Mohan (Credit: IEEE/NASA)

New Delhi, Feb 19 (IANS) As the world watched the new NASA rover touchdown on the Martian surface, it was Indian American Swati Mohan who virtually spearheaded the successful landing of Perseverance that will search for signs on life on the Red Planet.

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” cheered Mohan, wearing a mask from the NASA headquarters in the US.

The Landing was perceived to be “so dangerous” it was nicknamed “7 minutes of terror”.

Swati Mohan, who also participated in several key NASA missions like the Cassini (a mission to Saturn) and GRAIL (a pair of spacecraft in formation on the Moon), had immigrated to the US from India when she was just age one and was inspired by ‘Star Trek’ series at age 9.

Mohan holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Cornell University and completed her MS and PhD from MIT in Aeronautics/Astronautics.

“@NASAPersevere is still in space right now, about 9,000 miles from Mars. So far, she is healthy and on course,” NASA said in a tweet.

“Swati Mohan, @NASAJPL engineer on the rover’s landing team, provides a status update on the #CountdownToMars”, it added.

Mohan wanted to become a pediatrician until age 16 but she was inspired by her first physics class and saw “engineering” as a way to further her interest in space exploration. She has been a member of the Perseverance Rover mission since its inception at NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The largest, most advanced rover NASA has sent to another world, touched down on Mars on Thursday, after a 203-day journey traversing 472 million kms.

Packed with groundbreaking technology, the Mars 2020 mission was launched on July 30, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The Perseverance rover mission marks an ambitious first step in the effort to collect Mars samples and return them to Earth.

“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States, and space exploration globally – when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, so to speak, to rewrite the textbooks,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

About the size of a car, the 2,263-pound (1,026-kilogram) robotic geologist and astrobiologist will undergo several weeks of testing before it begins its two-year science investigation of Mars’ Jezero Crater.

While the rover will investigate the rock and sediment of Jezero’s ancient lakebed and river delta to characterize the region’s geology and past climate, a fundamental part of its mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life.

To that end, the Mars Sample Return campaign, being planned by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), will allow scientists on Earth to study samples collected by Perseverance to search for definitive signs of past life using instruments too large and complex to send to the Red Planet.

Washington: “Congratulations to NASA and everyone whose hard work made Perseverance’s historic landing possible. Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility,” US President Joe Biden tweeted.

The six-wheeled vehicle will now spend at least the next two years drilling into the local rocks, looking for evidence of past life.

The Jezero Crater where the Rover has landed is thought to have held a giant lake billions
of years ago. And where there’s been water, there’s the possibility there might also have been life.

“We are in a nice flat spot. The vehicle is only tilted by about 1.2 degrees,” said Allen Chen, who led the landing team. “So we did successfully find that parking lot and have a safe rover on the ground. And I couldn’t be more proud of my team for doing that.”

This is the second one-tonne rover put on Mars by the US space agency. The first, Curiosity, was landed in a different crater in 2012. It trialled innovative descent technologies.

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