Alum works to bring rover to Mars
The August 6 touchdown of Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory rover, begins a robotic exploration effort to determine the habitability of Mars. Over the course of a full Martian year (687 Earth days), Curiosity will study rocks, soil, and the geological setting, looking for forms of carbon. The main science goals of the mission are to determine whether Mars could have sustained microbial life, to characterize the climate of Mars, to characterize the geology of Mars, and to prepare for human exploration.
“We’ve only just started answering these questions and exploring whether life is possible on Mars,” NASA engineer Steve Lee said.
Lee, an AEM alum, is deeply involved with the Mars Science Laboratory mission, both as the Guidance, Navigation, and Control System Manager and as Deputy Surface Phase Lead. His work controls the orientation and flight path of the spacecraft, guiding it through different phases of the mission. He helped develop the entry, descent, and landing guidance system, which steers the Mars Science Laboratory to a more precise landing on the surface of Mars culminating in the unique “skycrane” landing technique. He has also worked on the control system of the rover once it is on the surface.
Lee received a Bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Minnesota in 1985. He went on to receive a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of South Florida in 1992. Prior to his work on the Mars Science Laboratory, Lee worked on the Space Shuttle, Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter projects. He credits his aerospace education and the University of Minnesota as having a weighty impact on his career.
“It’s great. When working on projects with entry, descent and landing profiles, 80 percent of my education is applicable to my job.” Lee said. “The immediate contributions I was able to make to the field caused me to be noticed early and allow for future career growth.”
Lee has found it rewarding to work with so many aspects of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, which he has been involved with for the past seven years.
“From a personal standpoint it’s very exciting, putting together a very complicated system and then seeing it very successfully delivered, particularly when the science results will be so spectacular.” Lee said.
The entry, descent, and landing system for the mission is very unique when compared to past missions to Mars. While past missions relied on parachute and airbag landings, the Mars Science Laboratory includes powered descent and sky crane components. As it enters the Martian atmosphere, the spacecraft will be controlled by small rockets to achieve a guided entry. It will initially be slowed by a large parachute, which is then detached and rockets will control the spacecraft’s descent until it is near the surface. The rover will then be lowered from the spacecraft onto the surface of Mars with a sky crane system. The sky crane/rocket system will then veer off and land a safe distance away, so as not to damage the rover. This system represents a huge engineering effort, and must be fully automated. It takes 14 minutes for a signal to travel from Mars to Earth, making any real-time control of the mission impossible.
“In the simulated world, we’ve landed on Mars millions of times,” Lee said in an interview with The New York Times. “I’m actually very comfortable. I’m more comfortable with the impending landing than I was with the launch.”