Press "Enter" to skip to content

What it takes to get a job building robotic Mars explorers for NASA

After a fortunately uneventful seven-month journey, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is ready to safely attain the Red Planet and insert itself into orbit on Thursday forward of deploying the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter prototype that it’s been toting down to the planet’s floor in search for proof of historical microbial life.

However, this expedition has been within the works for far longer than Perseverance has been travelling by way of interplanetary house. First announced in 2012, the mission marks the fruits of almost a decade’s work by a whole bunch of machinists, designers, rocket scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. But not just anyone can get hired there, working for the world’s premiere spacecraft manufacturing facility and building tools that may grace the surfaces of neighboring planets.

For Mohamed Abid, a Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer on the Mars 2020 mission, the trail to working on the JPL started in Tunisia, the place he grew up. “After high school, I did my master and undergrad in Europe,” he defined to Engadget. “Then I came here to the US for my PhD.” Getting good grades clearly helped elevate his probabilities of touchdown a position on the JPL, Abid asserted, however “having internships, participating in internships, was really paramount. It gave me what I needed to get where I am.”

“There’s the type of folks that… just do their hours and leave. Others, they more tried to absorb everything they can to expand on the topic that they were working on; whether that’s building parts, designing parts, writing code, whatever it is. So, try to go beyond and above,” he suggested. “It has a different connotation where ‘yeah, he or she finished an internship and they provide a report’ versus ‘yeah, they did this report and then on top of that, they provided some additional help for the company.’”

Abid additionally advocates for potential JPL candidates to develop and nurture their hobbies, whether or not that’s puttering across the storage whereas homebrewing robots, studying about moral hacking, and even simply portray and different conventional arts. That added hands-on expertise might effectively be the additional nudge wanted to persuade recruiters to hire you versus an in any other case equally certified competitor.

These extra {qualifications} may also assist newly employed JPL staff rise by way of the company’s ranks. “It takes a village to build a to raise a rover,” he continued. “It’s a whole team and then you know the interests of the individual based on their affinity, what they’re comfortable with and what they want to be.”

“Everyone has an interesting story to tell about how they ended up here and what worked well for them,” Abid added. “All kinds of skills are needed to build this equipment so NASAs encourage its employees to continue these extracurriculars.”

National Geographic Channel

While these experiences may also help set you other than the remainder of the applicant pool, you’ll nonetheless want to move your interview, which as Abid notes, is “very attribute dependent.” Some interviewers will ask tough questions akin to Google’s notorious “how many golf balls fit on a school bus” whereas others will focus extra on the applicant’s vital pondering expertise or interpersonal capabilities, “how to work within a team, how to behave within the team,“ Abid explained. “There’s no set criteria. It’s very person-dependent, need-dependent.”

As Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer, Abid’s obligations on the JPL are fairly diversified as effectively, relying on the part the project is at the moment in. For the design part, his focus is on “do you have the right designs, is this the right design for us to use? What are the trades that we need to have in place and what decisions have to be made to go with one design versus another?”

Once the project enters the build part, Abid should fear about “are we building the right thing, what are the materials that we’re using, what are the analyses that we are using?” Basically ensuring that the workforce is asking the proper questions and guaranteeing they, as he put it “come up with the right system that can meet the requirements and constraints that we have for this super-duper complicated machinery.”

The testing and verification part is particularly thrilling for Abid. “Every time you write a test, you’d like to have as many problems early on in the project,” he defined. “Because you want to solve all those problems right before you hit the red button to launch.” These issues might vary from double checking that the adhesives used to glue elements collectively bond tightly sufficient to guaranteeing that vital techniques gained’t rattle themselves to items underneath the strains of the launch.

For Christina Hernandez, a Payload Systems Engineer on the JPL, the position is all about asking ‘why’. “We’re kind of like a jack of all trades,” she defined to Engadget. “Our job is to be in it. We’re not mechanical engineers, we’re not electrical engineers or software engineers — even though a lot of us have those backgrounds — but our job is to kind of look at the big picture and see this thing come together.”

“A payload systems engineer is basically the person whose job it is to understand the science instruments or the tools that we’re taking on Perseverance,” Hernandez added. “So the reason why I particularly love payload systems engineering is because in addition to understanding the technology behind the instrument, the design, the coding, you also have to understand the motivation for doing it and that means you get insight into the science [behind those systems].”

Hernandez’s route to the JPL was a bit extra direct than Abid’s. She graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California with a Masters in spacecraft design and house environments modeling, initially interested by creating techniques to gather house junk from low Earth orbit.

“That problem fascinated me so I learned basic programming skills [like FORTRAN] and testing skills, but more importantly, it was the critical thinking skills,” she defined. “A systems engineer has to be able to question all the disciplines that it takes to come up with whatever particular design [is being implemented].”

Not each position inside the JPL requires fairly such a breadth and depth of data. While some staff will transfer between roles and groups a number of instances throughout their careers, others discover their area of interest and persist with it. “I mean it’s up to you,” Hernandez mentioned. “I’ve met folks who really love fasteners. That’s all they want to do, they’re really passionate about fasteners and that’s pretty cool because we need subject matter experts like that.”

For Hernandez, essentially the most fascinating a part of the Mars 2020 manufacturing cycle has been the verification and validation part. “If you have new technology that you’re trying out for the first time, you have to build confidence in it,” she defined. “And then you get into this phase where you have your prototype of the instrument, we call them engineering models, then you get to take it to the test set. To me it’s one of the most fascinating places at the JPL.”

That’s due partly to the truth that the JPL take a look at web site is dwelling to Optimism, a almost an identical twin of the Perseverance rover in addition to one for the Ingenuity helicopter. By operating exams on these, “you really start to kind of get into the weeds of, ‘was this the right implementation of the hardware and more importantly, how does it interact with the software?’”

Ingenuity helicopter installation, JPL Spacecraft Assembly Facility. (NASA/JPL-CALTECHÂ )

NASA/JPL-CALTECH

“And so right around after critical design review where you know the designs are fairly stable, you start to then test it at a system level,” she continued. “And that’s where you know all the systems engineers get excited because you kind of start to get a feel for whether the end to end system is going in the direction that you envisioned based on your scientific and mission objectives.”

As the Mars 2020 arrival date approached, pressures on the workforce steadily mounted. “One of the things that I feel is very unique about the operation right now is that we’re gearing up for going into Mars time,” Hernandez mentioned. “And so during this period, the team effectively works the Martian night shift. We’ll adjust our clocks roughly 37-ish minutes every day so that we can get all the instructions up to the vehicle while it’s sleeping, and then the vehicle will execute those activities and we’ll get the data once we come in the next day.”

“Eventually right you’re sending the vehicle instructions for maybe three or four Sols [Martian days, or 24 hours 39 minutes 35.244 seconds],” she continued. This can turn out to be a nerve-wracking train provided that the workforce has loved the luxurious of getting almost instantaneous suggestions from their exams right here on Earth. “I am used to testing the laptops right there. The hardware is right there, I see the result, I see the data and I adjust immediately. And now it’s like this extra challenge of okay you designed this so that it was robust enough for it to take care of itself.”

“One of the things that I’ve appreciated is the automation and the intelligence of the vehicle, to be able to make decisions to keep itself safe while taking advantage of scientific opportunities,” she concluded.

The Mars 2020 mission is predicted to arrive at its vacation spot on Thursday, February 18th at round 3:55pm ET. Tune into NASA’s YT channel to watch the orbital insertion dwell and ensure to try Built for Mars: The Perseverance Rover, premiering on the Nat Geo channel at 8pm ET Thursday for a deeper dive into what it took to design and assemble these unimaginable robotic planetary explorers — together with a uncommon glimpse at operations inside Building 179 and the “Area 151” clear room the place Perseverance and Ingenuity have been put collectively.