Miles Fertel smiles at the camera while holding a Mars globe in one hand and pointing to Mars 2020's planned landing spot with the other hand. He's standing in front of a light sculpture and a sign that says "Dare Mighty Things."

Miles Fertel smiles at the camera while holding a Mars globe in one hand and pointing to Mars 2020's planned landing spot with the other hand. He's standing in front of a light sculpture and a sign that says "Dare Mighty Things."

There's no joystick for driving rovers on Mars. Instead, a team of scientists and engineers gathers every day to plan each move and then beams a series of instructions to the rover's computerized brain, like interplanetary telepathy. As the only tether between the rover and the mission team on Earth, the onboard computer needs to run flawlessly. So before the rover even leaves Earth, its brain is put to the test. That's where Miles Fertel came in this past summer. As an intern with the rover simulation and planning team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Fertel was tasked with writing a program that tests how well the agency's next Mars rover interprets the instructions it receives. The trick, he said, was outsmarting not the rover but the humans who programmed it. We caught up with the Harvard University computer science student to learn more about his internship with the Mars 2020 team and to hear what he considered the most unique experience of his summer at JPL.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on software for the Mars 2020 rover – so the code and tools that allow the rover to function on Mars. My team is rover simulation and planning. The rover planners are the people who take in all the information from the scientists and the rover and write commands to send to the rover through the Deep Space Network, which is basically the internet for space. As the simulation team, we make sure that the commands that we're going to send are going to be effective and that they're going to be safe so that this rover we send to Mars after all this painstaking work isn't going to get stuck in a hole or break because of a wrong command.

What is your average day like on your project?

I work on creating tests that humans couldn't come up with. The average testing for software is you write tests to make sure that the code isn't going to fail when you add in certain instructions. But humans – specifically the humans who write the tests – tend to be the same people who write the code. They're not going to be able to come up with as good of a test, because if they knew what was going to break, they wouldn't have written the bug in the first place.

What I do is use a couple of testing frameworks that use generational input adjustments. They develop in an evolutionary way, starting from a simple input that I put in. So, say we're working on commands for the rover. We can start with, "Go forward," and then the system will modify the instructions based on a dictionary of information I provide. So I say, "These are words that might make sense to the rover. Try coming up with combinations of these that might result in behavior that we haven't seen before." If that behavior is defined, then everything's fine, but if it's going to cause a problem, then it's important that we know that so we can update the code.

What are you studying in school, and what got you interested in that field?

I study computer science at Harvard. I hadn't done any programming before coming to college. I thought I wanted to do something in the area of technology and possibly business, but I didn't really know. So I took the intro to computer science class, and I really loved it. I loved the challenge of feeling like my homework was a puzzle and not a chore. That drew me to it, and I started taking all the classes that I could in that realm.

What is your ultimate career goal?

I don't think anyone should have an ultimate career goal. I think careers should be a fluid thing and that people should build up skills that allow them to do the things that are most interesting to them. Right now, my goal is making sure that the Mars 2020 rover lands on Mars and everything goes swimmingly when it gets there. But, ultimately, I want to work on cool things with interesting people.

How do you feel that you're contributing to Mars 2020 and making the mission a success?

When I came here, my main goal was having a tangible impact on the project. I wanted something where every minute I spent working would be important to meeting the goal of the project. I find bugs every day, and I fix them, and that's great. Hopefully, before the summer's over, I will have a patch that I can write for the software that will end up on the rover.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

I had a friend who interned here two years ago, and he recommended it really highly, saying he had a terrific time and his team members were great. I applied online, but when you apply, it's a general application and you could be picked for any project based on your set of skills.

I knew that I wanted to work on Mars 2020, so I went on the JPL website, and I researched teams and people working on robotic software for the mission. I emailed Jeng Yen, my group supervisor. I said, "Here's my resume. This is what I'm interested in. Are there any projects that I could work on?" He said, "One of my team members, Steven Myint, is working on something that fits your profile pretty well. You should talk to him." So I talked to him, and the rest is history.

That's great. That's something we recommend students do if there's a particular project or area of research they're interested in. What is the most unique JPL or NASA experience that you've had while you've been here?

Oh, easy. One of my team members, Trevor Reed, is a rover planner for Curiosity. Every morning the team has a tactical meeting in which they go over the schedule for the day for the rover, and they give instructions to the rover planners who will write the commands that tell the rover what to do. When I found out that one of my teammates drives the Curiosity rover, I was like, "Can I please, please shadow you for that process?"

So I showed up at 8 o'clock in the morning in the Curiosity rover tactical office, or conference room, and there's the head scientist, Ashwin Vasavada, who I'd read about in articles. I watched them send the actual commands to the rover. I learned all about the planning and tolerances that are involved in the simulations that we do. I got to see the software that I'm working on in action, because it's also used for Curiosity. It was a pretty amazing experience to sit there for a couple of hours and watch them go through the entire process of a day on Mars.

Now for a fun question: 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?

Every kid wants to be an astronaut, right? I mean, if you're offering … As much as I would love to be an astronaut, my interests in the short term are contributing to and building projects that I think are important. So for those future missions, I think I would want to have more input on the design, the structure and the planning, overall. So maybe I would want to be a systems engineer or even work on the design.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Software, Computer Science, Programming, Coding

  • Kim Orr
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Isabel Rayas holds a spare rover wheel while posing in front of a rover parked in a garage

A single movement of NASA's next Mars rover could require, among other things, the careful dance of six independently motored wheels, a retractable arm containing a laboratory's worth of tools, a swiveling head supporting multiple cameras and a computer that can pinpoint the rover's precise location. So this past summer, while other teams and their interns at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory were testing cameras and calibrating science instruments to prepare the rover for its February 2021 debut on Mars, intern Isabel Rayas was making sure all those pieces move seamlessly together. This meant spending a lot of time in the laboratory's Mars Yard, a sandbox of sorts where engineers put models of the rover through various test drives. For Rayas, a graduate student studying computer science and robotics at the University of Southern California, it was also a window into one potential future career, although, she says, "I'm definitely still exploring." We chatted with Rayas to learn more about her role on the Mars 2020 mission and what it's like to drive a rover.

What are you working on at JPL?

I am working on mobility testing for the Mars 2020 rover. It's taking all of these parts that impact something like mobility – the motion of the rover – and understanding how they work together. We're testing everything to make sure that all the parts play nicely together and that one of them doesn't have a bug that's going to cause a failure in another part of the system.

Are you working on the actual rover that's going to Mars?

There's a whole spectrum of testbeds. What you're testing will dictate which testbed you use. If you're only trying to test one small part of the rover, you're not going to bother using the full system. The flight software testbed, where I'm working, has the real flight computer. It has some of the real cameras. It doesn't have the real motors yet, but we're working on it. Assembly, Test and Launch Operations, or ATLO, is actually putting together the real thing and doing tests with the real hardware.

Tell me more about your role in the flight software testbed.

There are two main things that I am working on this summer: One of them is getting all the hardware pieces in the flight software testbed that impact the mobility of the rover.

You might think that mobility is just the wheels of the rover, but there are a lot of subsystems and instruments that have an influence on mobility. There is an instrument called RIMFAX that will be used for radar sounding. It will point at the Martian surface to collect readings of what the subterranean surface looks like and what it's made up of. You wouldn't necessarily think that has an impact on mobility, but it actually does, because you have to know exactly where you are when you take a radar sounding in order to make any sense of it. You have to be able to tell, "I've moved this far, and this is what I'm sounding, and that's what the ground looks like at this specific spot." So that's a piece of hardware that needs to be integrated into a full mobility test. Then there's the flight computer. There's a computer just for processing the images from the rover. That's also not in the testbed yet, so that's something I'm trying to get delivered so we can run tests with it.

Once we get all these hardware parts into the testbed, we want to run a mobility sequence that tells the motors to move while doing all of these tasks to make sure the system works. So I'm writing the procedure and making sure that all the parts are in the testbed for that.

The second thing I'm working on is in the Mars Yard. While we do test drives around the Mars Yard, we want to know precisely where the rover is located, because we want to be able to know whether or not the autonomous system that tells the rover where it is works. So I'm looking at different systems that will help us do those tests.

What is your average day like?

There's no good answer to that. It changes day by day, which is exciting. This morning, for example, I was in the Mars Yard learning about a position tracking system with someone who was setting it up to do a test. As a systems engineer, you have to go to a lot of meetings, because you have to learn from different teams about what's going on and go over test procedures. I compile all the information from the meetings, try to understand it and meet with more people to get questions answered. I'm in and out of the office. I'm in the Mars Yard. I'm in the testbed, in the cleanroom – all kinds of stuff.

Isabel Rayas kneels down in front of the Scarecrow rover in a garage and places her hand on one of the front wheels

Rayas examines one of the Scarecrow rover's wheels. Scarecrow is a simplified version of a Mars rover that's used for testing maneuvers on a simulated Red Planet terrain at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

You mentioned your project deals with systems engineering. What's the job of a systems engineer?

You do a little of everything. For the rover, you have people designing the wheels, and you have people designing the instruments. Those people have to be experts in that thing and understand exactly how it works and make sure that nothing's going to break. While those people are experts in a specific part of the system, they can't be expected to also understand how everything comes together and how that impacts the whole system. So that's where systems engineers come in. They are not experts in any one of the areas, but they have to understand enough about each of them to know how they impact each other.

Is that what you are studying in school?

No. I just finished my first year of grad school at the University of Southern California, studying computer science and robotics. I got my undergrad in aerospace engineering from MIT, so I have previous experience in aerospace, but I haven't taken any systems engineering classes. My senior capstone had a systems engineering project, and I got exposure to it there, but we had maybe 100 requirements for our project, and here there are tens of thousands. It's a little bit of a step up.

What got you into aerospace engineering?

I think this is maybe true of most kids, but I really liked looking at the stars and thinking about the planets. I knew from a very young age that I was interested in STEM. I took an astronomy class in high school that I loved, and I thought I wanted to do astrophysics, but when I got to college, I took a physics class and didn't like it at all. I switched to the closest thing that wasn't science, which was aerospace engineering.

I also minored in brain and cognitive sciences, because I really couldn't decide. I took some computer science classes during college as well. So I've been kind of all over the place, and I ended up here again.

What made you focus on computer science and robotics for grad school?

My undergrad was in aerospace, but with a concentration in autonomous systems. I've always been interested in the robotic applications of aerospace – not necessarily the rocket design, or propulsion, or the aerodynamics or anything like that.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

I actually interned here two years ago. My friend had interned at JPL the year before, and she was like, "This was awesome. I love it so much." As an aerospace major, it's kind of the dream, right? So I ended up coming here two years ago. Now that I'm at USC, it's so close that I thought I could probably find some way to be here again this summer, doing something new that's not really related to my program at school.

What's the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience that you've had here?

My first day was right after the Explore JPL event, so thousands of people had come through that weekend to learn about what JPL does and see all the different labs and technology. They had brought the Scarecrow rover, [used to test Mars rover drives], down to the entrance of JPL so people could see it move around. When I got here on Monday, it was my mentor's job to bring it back to the Mars Yard, which is all the way down the street, up the hill – not close at all. So he was like, "Do you want to move the rover across the Lab?"

We had to pick up the rover with a crane and drive it across lab. People were taking videos of us as we went by. After that, my mentor was like, "Do you want to drive it around the Mars Yard?" So I got to drive it around for a while. That was something that I think is kind of unique.

What do you hope to accomplish during your time here?

I would really like to see this test procedure run. I have high hopes. Ten weeks [at JPL] is such a short amount of time. I think it would be easy to get caught up in a lot of things that are less important and end up having something half-finished. I know from talking to my mentor that a test that includes all of this hardware could be really valuable, because it would help the team find bugs before they're too late to fix. Knowing that's my responsibility is exciting. It's a little bit scary, but in a good way.

What's your ultimate goal for your career?

I'm not really sure yet. I'm definitely still exploring. I think internships are a great way to do that, so I'm planning on doing as many as I can in as many different fields as I can. Beyond that, I think my overarching career goal is to keep learning. I don't know where that will take me.

Speaking of future careers: If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars in the near future, what would it be?

Wow. That's tough. I would love to be one of the people who goes to the Moon. I don't think I would want to go to Mars.

Why not?

It's too far. I like Earth a lot. It's probably my favorite planet. So I wouldn't want to get too far from home. But I would love to go to space. Going to the Moon would be a nice, happy medium.

Have you ever thought about applying to be an astronaut?

Not seriously. I wanted to be an astronaut for the first couple of years in college. But I thought about it some more and about how much training you have to do, and I didn't want to dedicate all my time to training. I thought I could use engineering instead to help us get there.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Computer Science

  • Kim Orr
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Jarod Boone poses in front of a mural at JPL

With wildfires around the world occurring increasingly often and burning over a longer portion of the year, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are working to understand whether the blazes could have long-term impacts on global climate change. In some respects, it’s a tough question to answer – not because of an absence of data, but because of an overabundance. That’s where intern Jarod Boone, a computer engineering student at Brown University, comes in. As part of a program at JPL that brings together designers, computer programmers and scientists to answer data-heavy science questions using visualizations, Boone spent this summer helping climate researchers visualize tens of thousands of files containing wildfire data collected by instruments on NASA’s Terra satellite. Boone shared what it was like visualizing wildfire data as more than a dozen wildfires burned across California (where JPL is located) and how he never quite got used to JPLers’ tendency to speak in acronyms.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm doing the programming for a data visualization tool to help researchers who are using the Terra satellite analyze wildfire data and how high these fires inject into the atmosphere. That's a question scientists are really concerned with because you have all these fires burning up matter, and all the matter that they burn goes into the air and just floats around for many, many days afterward. We don't really know how exactly that affects global climate change, so it's good to take a look at the data.

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Have you discovered anything so far from these visualizations?

Not quite yet. So the [Data to Discovery Visualization Program] that I’m a part of is sort of a unique program here at JPL. We have two designers and three computer science teams, and we have three projects that we work on. It's very design focused. So in the course of my projects, we have several weeks of what we call contextual inquiry, which is going in and doing interviews, creating prototypes and basically trying to get an idea of what scientists do for their workflow, because it’s kind of hard to conceive of what you would do to answer a scientific question if you don't have a scientific background. So we spend a lot of time getting to know what the scientists are trying to accomplish. We're trying to make the best interface possible for them to use this data. That's actually a huge problem in science: There's a huge barrier to entry with a lot of these data sets, so it discourages things like exploratory science.

Have you been adding all the recent wildfires in the western U.S. to your data set?

I'm mostly working with older fires because it takes a bit of time to digitize the fires that are imaged by the Terra satellite. They have to go through this process where they take a bunch of images of the fire – because you have these flat images and you're trying to get plume height and the satellite is moving – and they essentially need to stitch together the images of the fire to get an idea of how high the smoke plume is, which is quite a process. And it has to be done one by one. But there are enough older fires for us to work with.

You're from Massachusetts, a state that doesn't have a lot of wildfires. Has being in Southern California during all the wildfires this summer changed your perspective on how to go about these visualizations?

It's a little hard because the visualizations and working with all the satellite data is so detached, and they're really abstracted away from any actual fires. So it's like I'm just seeing all these data points and getting all these data products, like optical depth. I don't really know what that is, so when I see a real fire, I'm like, "Whoa, that's what that is." But there's not really a huge cognitive connection. It's definitely cool to be able to work with something that's pretty pertinent and definitely a problem in California.

What's the ultimate goal of the project both for you and for JPL?

For JPL, it is to refine our ideas of climate models and better take fires into account. The global climate models right now do a fairly poor job of taking fires into account because it's really difficult. They happen so sporadically. It's not a fluid weather system. It's these discrete fires, and they're just huge dumps of energy. How do we account for that? So that's definitely the end goal for JPL.

I am not a climate scientist. I will not be doing any updates to the climate models, but I do hope to encourage exploratory research. And I'm sort of trying to introduce principles of design and human-centered interfacing and accessibility to climate scientists. Actually, one of my mentors was very excited about what I was working on and had me submit an abstract for the [American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting]. So visualizing is important. You should be able to conceive of the data you're using.

Jarod Boone works on his laptop

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

How did you get involved in the program that brought you to JPL to do this work?

I had done a lot of visualization work at my school. Not on purpose, tangentially. I worked at the Brown University Center for Computation and Visualization, so we had a lot of people coming in wanting to do some kind of research visualization and they had a lot of technical problems. So I sort of got sucked into the visualization and research-aid world. One of my bosses knew Santiago Lombeyda, one of the mentors in this program from Caltech, and he said he was looking for data visualization students who were well versed in that and able to do computer science. JPL seemed pretty cool, so I decided to apply.

What are you thinking you want to do eventually?

So long, long term, I have this vision of humanizing computer systems. A lot of software developers don't know entirely how systems work. A lot of consumers are still confused by computers, and we're still using a bunch of folders spread out to represent files rather than something more intuitive or something that represents the data better. The fact that most users need to troubleshoot online to figure out how to use their computer and answer how to fix certain problems is a problem. I feel like we know enough about computers at this point and this generation is, in general, literate enough about computer science to be able to understand what's going on. We can possibly do a lot better making operating systems transparent. That's what I would like to do. I think that would be a cool project.

Is there a particular place that you'd want to do that?

In practice, I would just like to work a little bit in industry, doing systems development either in hardware or software. It's really cool to work with a data system like this, a satellite that has a lot of nuanced issues with how you get the data and what you can do with the data and how you transmit it back and forth and, at the end, what you do with that data problem.

What's an average day like for you?

So we actually split up a decent amount of our time between here and Caltech [which manages JPL for NASA]. Most days I'll have meetings with our research groups just to touch base and see what's happening. On Mondays, we'll have [critiques] all day, which is where our mentors review our projects up to that point. Then, pretty much the rest of the day I'll spend meeting with my designers and programming. Sometimes I go for walks or explore the campus a little bit. But most of the time, I'm just holed up doing the computer thing.

What's been the most JPL or NASA unique experience you've had so far?

During the second meeting that I had with my mentor, Abigail Nastan, she used like five acronyms in the same sentence. And I was just, "Can you just use words?" [Laughs.] You guys should just have an acronyms cheat-sheet for interns.

Also, going to the Mars Yard, sitting in the rocks. Every experience here is a NASA experience.

If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

In space? I mean, Earth is really cool. I guess I'd probably go to Jupiter, just because something fishy is going on there. [Laughs.] That planet is too big. Also, I just don't trust gas giants. What do you mean, you don't have a surface? I definitely would not go on Jupiter – I'd just watch it from afar.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Internships, Higher Education, Career Guidance, Computer Science, Visualizations, Data, Earth Science, Wildfires

  • Kim Orr
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Screen capture from the Exploring Mars With Scratch lesson from NASA/JPL Edu

Try this lesson from NASA/JPL Edu to get involved and bring the excitement of NASA Mars exploration to students:

TAGS: HourOfCode, Computer Science, Computer Science Education Week, Coding, Programming, Lessons, K-12, Classroom Activities, Mars Exploration, Technology

  • Lyle Tavernier
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