Deciding where to land on Mars has always meant striking the right balance between potential science wins and the risk of mission failure. But new technology that will allow NASA's next Mars rover, Perseverance, to adjust its trajectory to the safest spot within an otherwise riskier landing area is giving science its biggest edge yet. This past summer, it was intern Tiffany Shi's task to help prepare the new technology, called the Lander Vision System, for its debut on Mars. Analyzing data from test flights in California's Death Valley, the Stanford University student joined the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to make sure the new landing system will work as designed, guiding the Perseverance rover to a safe landing as the spacecraft speeds toward the surface into Mars' Jezero Crater. We caught up with Shi to find out what it was like to work on the technology, how she managed the 8-to-5 and how she found a new approach to problem-solving.
What are you working on at JPL?
I'm working with the Mars 2020 mission, building the lander system for the Perseverance Mars rover. This is new technology in that [as the rover is landing on Mars] it is going to be able to look down at the surface below and figure out where is the safest place to land within the chosen area. Because of this technology, we're going to be able to land in a place that's more geologically and scientifically interesting than anywhere else we've been on Mars.
How did previous Mars landings work?
Before, it was only really safe to land if we picked a huge, flat area and programmed the spacecraft to land somewhere in there. But for the Mars 2020 mission, the spacecraft will take images of the terrain below as it descends into the atmosphere and will match those images to reference maps that we have from the work of previous missions. This will allow us to autonomously detect potential landing hazards and divert our spacecraft from them. In other words, the spacecraft is going to be able to look below and find the safest place to land in an area that's generally more hazardous [than what previous rovers have landed in].
What is your average day like on the project?
My average day consists of coming here at 8. That is very new for me [laughs]. I sit in the basement with two office mates, and we each work on our own things. I'm doing error analysis to find any bugs in the Lander Vision System, which is what will be used to land the rover on Mars. The algorithm for the landing system is pretty much written, and I'm analyzing the field-test data that they got from the tests that were done in Death Valley in February. Both my office mates are also working on the Lander Vision System, but they're not on the same exact project. They are all super-nice and helpful, and we all talk about our work, so it's a lot of fun.
Tell me more about the field tests and how you're analyzing the results.
In February, the team took a helicopter and they attached a copy of the Lander Vision System to the front. The helicopter did a bunch of nosedives and spirals over the terrain, which is really similar to what the rover will see on Mars. The goal is to see how accurate our predictions are for our algorithm relative to our reference maps. We're using the tests to improve our algorithm before the spacecraft launches.
What are you studying at Stanford?
I'm not sure what my major will be yet. I don't have to declare it until the end of my second year. I've only just finished my freshman year. I'm thinking maybe computer science or a mix of computer science and philosophy, because I really like both.
What got you interested in those majors?
I did debate in high school, and a lot of debaters use philosophy to argue different perspectives. So that's what got me started.
What about the computer science side?
I was in Girls Who Code while I was in high school, and there were JPL mentors who came to my school every Friday and taught us everything that we wanted to know. It was a super-fun place, super-inclusive. You see a lot of shy girls who don't normally talk in classes really open up. They had great debates, great questions, and it was just really cool to see.
Had you had any experience coding before that?
No, but I started taking some classes after that, and I did an internship at Caltech my junior year.
What was the internship at Caltech?
It was actually with Christine Moran, who now works at JPL. When she was doing her postdoc at Caltech, she brought in 12 high-school student interns through a program called Summer App Space. I worked in a team that classified galaxies into 36 different categories using training and test images from an online machine-learning community.
Very cool! What has been the most uniquely JPL or NASA experience that you've had while you've been here?
I went to see the rover being built in the clean room with my mentor, and that was just surreal. Even though I am sure my contributions are going to be very small, I think it's wild that I am actually working on something that's going to Mars.
Has your internship opened your eyes to any potential career paths?
I haven't taken any aeronautics and astronautics classes, and I think I might see if I'm interested in studying that. It is so interesting working on something that is literally going to be in space. In college, you have an answer to work towards, and here you are finding the answer. I think I didn't really process what I was going to be doing before coming here.
Eventually, I know I want to go into computer science, but also I want to go into maybe social impact work. I'd love to find some intersection between those. I feel like I grew up really privileged, so I want to use my skills to help other people. But I do love computer science or something where I'd be really at the forefront of research.
If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon or on to Mars, what would you want to do?
Be there. I met Jessica Watkins, who used to intern here, and now she's one of the new NASA astronauts. She spoke to us during my Caltech internship. It was super surreal meeting her. So if I could play any part, I'd want to be up there.
This Q&A is part of an ongoing series telling the story of what it takes to design, build, land, and operate a rover on Mars, told from the perspective of students interning with NASA's Perseverance Mars rover mission. › Read more from the series
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.