UPDATE: Nov. 27, 2018 – The InSight spacecraft successfully touched down on Mars just before noon on Nov. 26, 2018, marking the eighth time NASA has succeeded in landing a spacecraft on the Red Planet. This story has been updated to reflect the current mission status. For more mission updates, follow along on the InSight Mission Blog, JPL News, as well as Facebook and Twitter (@NASAInSight, @NASAJPL and @NASA).
Matt Golombek’s job is one that could only exist at a place that regularly lands spacecraft on Mars. And for more than 20 years, the self-proclaimed “landing-site dude” and his rotating cast of interns at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have helped select seven of the agency’s landing sites on the Red Planet.
Golombek got his start in the Mars landing-site business as the project scientist for the first rover mission to the Red Planet in 1997. Since that time, he has enlisted the help of geology students to make the maps that tell engineers, scientists, stakeholders and now even the rovers and landers themselves where – and where not – to land. Among the list of no-gos can be rock fields, craters, cliffs, “inescapable hazards” and anything else that might impede an otherwise healthy landing or drive on Mars.
For Golombek’s interns, the goal of helping safely land a spacecraft on Mars is as awe-inspiring as it comes, but the awe can sometimes be forgotten in the day-to-day work of counting rocks and merging multitudes of maps, especially when a landing is scheduled for well after their internships are over. But with the landing site for NASA’s next Mars rover just announced and the careful work of deciding where to lay down science instruments for the freshly landed InSight mission soon to begin, interns Lauren Berger, Rachel Hausmann and Heather Lethcoe are well aware of the significance of their work – the most important of which lies just ahead.
Site UnseenSelecting a landing site on Mars requires a careful balancing act between engineering capabilities and science goals. It’s a partnership that for Golombek, a geologist, has evolved over the years.
Golombek reflects on the time before spacecraft like the now-critical Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provided high-resolution, global views of the Martian terrain. In those early days, without close-up images of the surface, the science was largely guesswork, using similar terrain on Earth to get a sense for what the team might be up against. Spacecraft would successfully touch down, but engineers would look aghast at images sent back of vast rock fields punctuated by sharp boulders that could easily destroy a lander speeding to the surface from space. NASA’s 1997 Pathfinder spacecraft, encased in airbags for landing, bounced as high as a 10-story building before rolling to a stop at its jagged outpost.
Now, Golombek and his interns take a decidedly more technological approach, feeding images of candidate landing sites into a machine-learning program designed to measure the size of rocks based on the shadows they cast and carefully combining a series of images, maps and other data using Geographical Information Systems, or GIS, software (a required skill for Golombek’s interns).
Still, there are some things that must be done by hand – or eye, as the case may be.
“Lauren [Berger] is now an expert on inescapable hazards,” says Golombek of one of his current trio of interns. “She can look at those ripples, and she knows immediately whether it’s inescapable, probably inescapable, probably escapable or not a problem.”
“Or, as we like to say, death, part death and no death,” jokes Berger.
“We work with them to train them so their eye can see it. And so far, that’s the best way to [identify such hazards]. We don’t have any automated way to do that,” says Golombek.
“I like to call Lauren the Jedi master of ripples-pattern mapping,” says fellow intern Heather Lethcoe, who is the team’s mapping expert for the Mars 2020 rover mission. “I helped her a little bit with that, and now I’m seeing ripples closing my eyes at night.”
Until recently, Lethcoe and Berger were busily preparing maps for October’s landing site workshop, during which scientists debated the merits of the final four touchdown locations for the Mars 2020 mission. If Golombek’s team had a preferred candidate, they wouldn’t say. Their task was to identify the risks and determine what’s safe, not what’s most scientifically worthy. Thanks to new technology that for the first time will allow the rover to divert to the safest part of its landing ellipse using a map created by Golombek’s team, the debate about where to land was solely focused on science. So unlike landing site workshops for past Mars missions, Golombek’s team stayed on the sidelines and let the scientists “have at it.” (In the end, as with all other missions, the final site recommendation was made by the mission with NASA’s approval.)
Now, with an official landing site announced, it might seem that Golombek’s team is out of work. But really, the work is just beginning. “We’ll be heavily involved in making the final hazard map for the [Mars 2020] landing site, which will then get handed to the engineers to code up so that the rover will make the right decisions,” says Golombek.
Learn all about NASA's latest Mars mission and how to turn it into a Teachable Moment for students.
Meanwhile, the team will be busy with the outcome of another Mars landing: InSight, a spacecraft designed to study the inner workings of Mars and investigate how rocky planets, including Earth, came to be.
Golombek’s third intern, Rachel Hausmann, became a master at piecing together the hundreds of images, rock maps, slope maps and other data that were used to successfully land InSight. But because InSight is a stationary spacecraft, one of the most important parts of ensuring the mission’s success will happen after it lands. The team will need to survey the landing area and determine how and where to place each of the mission’s science instruments on the surface.
“If you think about it, it’s like landing-site selection, just a little smaller scale,” says Golombek. “You don’t want [the instruments] sitting on a slope. You don’t want them sitting on a rock.”
For that, Golombek is getting the help of not just Hausmann but all three interns. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have students who happen to be in the right place at the right time when a spacecraft lands and needs their expertise.”
Practice Makes PerfectTo prepare for this rare opportunity, the students have been embedded with different working groups, rehearsing the steps that will be required to place each of InSight’s instruments safely on Mars several weeks after landing.
“The groups have rehearsals for different anomalies, or issues, that could go wrong,” says Hausmann. “They do this to problem solve even down to, ‘Are we in the right room? Do we have enough space?’ because when you’re working on a space mission, you can’t have an issue with facilities.”
The students took part in the first of these so-called Operational Readiness Tests in early October and say it was an eye-opening experience.
“It was really helpful just to get to know the team and really understand what’s going to happen,” says Berger. “Now we know how to make it happen, and everyone’s a lot more ready. Also, it was so much fun.”
“That’s what I was going to say!” says Lethcoe. “That was just the rehearsal, and at the end of it, I felt so amped and pumped up. I can’t even imagine when we’re actually doing it how good that’s going to feel.”
Lethcoe says there was also the matter of balancing homework and midterms with full-time preparations for a Mars landing. That was its own sort of readiness test for December when the real work of deploying the instruments will coincide with finals.
Perhaps most surprising, say the students, was their realization that their expertise is valued by a team that’s well-versed in Mars landings.
“Imposter syndrome is real,” says Hausmann. But the team’s internships are serving as the perfect antidote.
“I had this fear that I don’t know if I’m going to be more in the way and more pestering or if I’m actually going to be helpful,” says Lethcoe, a student at Cal State University, Northridge, who was first exposed to the mapping software used by the team during her time in the U.S. Army. “It turns out that the [InSight geology] team lead gave me really nice reviews.”
Berger interjects to add supportive emphasis to Lethcoe’s statement – a common occurrence among the three women who have shared the same small office for more than a year now. “He said he absolutely needed her and she could not go away.”
Lethcoe laughs. “[My co-mentor] texted me to let me know, ‘You earned this,” and I tried not to take screenshots and send them to all my friends and my mom. They definitely make it known how much we’re appreciated.”
Adds Berger, “I think JPL really teaches you to have confidence in what you know.”
More than the mapping skills and research experience they’ve picked up during their time at JPL, it’s that confidence that they’re most eager to take back to school with them and impart to other young women interested in STEM careers.
Berger gave a talk about imposter syndrome at her school, Occidental College in Los Angeles, earlier this month. And Hausmann, a student at Oregon State University, says her efforts to encourage and coach young women are the most important contribution she’s making as a JPL intern.
“I just want to help young women get in [to research and internships] as early as possible in their college careers," says Hausmann. "I think that’s so important, just as important as the work we’re doing.”
The Next Frontier
When your internship or your job is to help land spacecraft and deploy instruments on Mars, the question, “Where do we go from here?” is literal and figurative. While the next year or so will be perhaps one of the busiest Golombek’s team has ever known, his future as the landing-site dude is uncertain.
“If what you do is select landing sites for a living, it’s kind of an odd thing because you can only work at one place,” says Golombek. “You need to have a spacecraft that needs a landing site selected for it. And for the past 20 years, there have been spacecraft that we’ve been landing on Mars. So I’m kind of out of business now because Mars 2020 is the last for the time being – there are no new [NASA Mars] landing sites that are being conceived of.”
At the mention of possible lander missions to other worlds, Golombek shrugs and his near-constant grin sinks into a thin horizon. “Don’t know,” he says. “I’m kind of a Martian, and I’ll probably stick with Mars.”
Maybe it’s a torch best carried by his intern alums, many of whom have gone from their internships to careers at JPL or other NASA centers. While Lethcoe, Berger and Hausmann are still enmeshed in their education – Lethcoe is in her junior year, Berger is taking a gap year before applying to graduate programs, and Hausmann is applying to Ph.D. programs in January – their experiences are sure to have a profound impact on their future. In many ways, they already have.
Could they be the landing-site dudes of the future? Maybe someday.
But for now, they’re focused on the challenges of the immediate future, helping NASA take the next steps in its exploration of Mars. And for that, “They’re super well trained,” Golombek says, “and just perfect for the job.”
This feature 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.
To prepare her team to analyze the first sample returned from Mars in the future, JPL intern Amanda Allen is exploring how she can get the biggest science from the smallest places. We caught up with Allen, an Earth science major at UC San Diego who also has a background in costume design, to find out what the tiniest and rarest fossils could tell us about ancient life on Earth – and beyond.
What are you working on at JPL?
I am trying to develop a method to analyze the isotopic ratios of organic carbon preserved in individual microfossils.
As living creatures on Earth, one of the most important elements to us is carbon. When we eat food, we are adding carbon to our bodies, and depending on what we eat and where we live, we get different types of carbon, which are called isotopes. Some isotopes are heavier than others, but living organisms have a tendency to process the lighter ones, which we can measure as a ratio.
When a creature dies, and if it becomes a fossil, any carbon that is preserved will hold a record of its isotope ratio. If we can get that fossil, we can use a mass spectrometer instrument to separate the lighter and heavier isotopes to see what that ratio is. Then we can use that to figure out what sort of lifestyle and eating habits the organism had.
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But usually, you don’t get a single fossil. Sometimes your sample is what was once sludge at the bottom of a lake, and that makes it difficult to study a specific fossil because there are lots of things that lived in the lake and contributed to that organic-rich sludge.
My lab is investigating some of the earliest evidence of the evolution of life on Earth, and one technique is to examine very tiny fossils – and there are not that many of them. So my project is working towards being able to take an individual microfossil and analyze it with our instruments. Right now, the state-of-the-art method needs a sample with about 10 times as much carbon as these microfossils to work properly. There’s also a lot of possible contamination with that method. So I'm working on trying to get a different method to work.
How does this work play into NASA missions and science?
We're planning on eventually getting samples back to Earth sometime in the future after the Mars 2020 rover lands, and we want to be able to get the most information out of the tiniest amount of material so that more people can have the opportunity to experiment on it.
What are the samples that you’re working with?
The samples that I'm working with are these little blobs of organic, carbon-walled microfossils. We don't really know what they are. They're called acritarchs, which is basically a lump-all term for, “of uncertain origin,” but they're some of the oldest biological signatures on Earth.
What's an average day like for you?
I’ve been working with the same lab over the past 3 years. At first, I was trying to get a handle on imaging the samples, studying them with a light microscope and our scanning electron microscope, looking for things like whether the surfaces had any rock bits left on them, estimating how much carbon they had, and then preparing them to be analyzed.
This summer, the instrument I’m working with is this really cool device called a Pyroprobe. It has a little platinum wire coil, and you fit a tiny little sample tube into it and the platinum coil will heat up to around 1,500 degrees Celsius [about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit]. We use oxygen to combust the sample so any carbon on it will turn into carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide can get passed to our isotope ratio mass spectrometer.
How do you feel that you're contributing to NASA missions and science?
I think the people I work with have a really good vision and intention when going about investigations like this. We want to be the ones who they hand the samples to when they come back from Mars. We want to show that we're taking every necessary precaution to treat the samples with care and that we have instruments that can look at thin sections of rocks and make images of them that can be shared instantaneously. I really like being a part of that.
I also feel like my superpower is being able to find things. So if there's something cool to find on Mars related to astrobiology, I think I can help with that. Finding life or signs of life on Mars is the coolest application of my superpower [laughs].
Before taking the science route, you were involved in theater and costume design. What made you choose to study science?
I had a really hard time choosing between costuming and geology for a long time. But then I realized that they didn't have to be separate things, or I could use one to kind of fuel the other one, and use an understanding of the natural world to inspire my art. Being able to actualize new ways of understanding the universe and helping other people understand it is really important, and I think that's where art comes in.
What's the most JPL or NASA unique experience you've had so far?
I think it's just being able to start up a conversation in the lunch line with someone and hear about this whole other experience and the important work that they are doing. People here are excited about what they do and excited to come to work. They want to cross boundaries. It’s people’s job to be the intermediary between the engineering side of things and the science side of things, and I’m totally into that emphasis on communication and bridging traditionally divided disciplines.
If you could travel anywhere in space, where would you go and what would you do there?
Hiking around Pluto would be pretty cool. I never thought I would say that until I saw the images of Pluto from New Horizons. I also realized recently that I'm more interested in going to Mars than another place on Earth. I'm like, oh yeah, Prague is cool, but I'm just more interested in Mars.
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.
I grew up moving around in the U.S. and Mexico, which made it hard to
keep up with school. I mainly struggled with my language arts classes,
but there were areas in which I excelled: math and science. I was in
high school when I decided I wanted to be a scientist; I was fascinated
by the explanations of the world through chemistry and physics. Although
I was living in Mexico at that time, I never gave up on the dream of
attending an American university to pursue my education. In 2010, my
family and I moved to California.
I was already a high school senior in my last semester when I enrolled in school. I had already missed all the university deadlines, hadn't taken the SATs and had to attend adult school in the afternoon to make up for missing credits. Despite all of that, I graduated on time and decided to attend the College of the Sequoias, a local community college, where I am now majoring in chemistry. (I will be transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles in the fall!)
During my freshman year, I heard about the NASA National Community
College Aerospace Scholars Program, and I decided to give it a shot. I
used my basic knowledge of chemistry to write a series of proposals for a
mission to Mars that included a timeline, budget and rover design.
Based on my individual performance, I was selected on a competitive
basis to attend the on-site team project at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory. There were about 40 students from all over the U.S. We were
split into four teams to put our ideas together and build a rover. We
called our team "Red Planet Research" and our rover was named "Isis."
(It was my birthday!) Through this I experience, I saw what it takes to
be a NASA scientist and engineer. I also discovered that I wanted to
become one of the JPL scientists who are involved with exploration
missions. I was hooked on studying the Earth and planets. I returned to
my school excited for what was to come and shared my excitement with
others. I am happy to say that four students from my community college
participated in NCAS this year at JPL.
In August of 2013, I received an email from NASA Education saying that I had been selected to receive the Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP) scholarship! The program guarantees two summer internships at any NASA center. Right away, I knew I wanted to come back to JPL. Although I come from a small community college, I managed to be a competitive applicant due to my involvement with science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, such as the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement Program and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.
This summer, for the first of my two NASA internships as a MUREP scholar, I am working in the AstroBiogeoChemistry (ABC) Lab measuring hydrogen and oxygen isotopes in hydrated clay minerals. Our goal is to improve instrument precision and techniques for possible future return-sample missions.
It's a dream come true to finally work in a planetary chemistry and astrobiology lab. I have the opportunity to meet researchers who are passionate about their work and be involved in exciting research. But I think the best part of the internship is my lab group. There are two other interns, two post-doctorate interns, a Ph.D. student, and my mentor. They all take the time to tell us about the work they're doing and, most important, mentor us as rising scientists. Throughout my experience, I have learned a lot about research, and I am inspired to continue in the STEM field. I was nervous before coming to JPL and didn't know what to expect, but being part of the ABC Lab has exceeded all my expectations. I encourage all community college students to apply for NASA opportunities.
Although my internship is coming to an end, I am happy to say that I will be back next summer to do more exciting research.
Learn more about JPL internships and fellowships