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.

Watch live as NASA's next rover, Mars 2020, is built and tested in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. | Watch on YouTube

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 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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Jeff Carlson stands in an open room posing next to an engineering model of the mast for the Mars 2020 rover

It may look cartoonish, but the face of NASA's next Mars rover is serious business for Jeff Carlson. A former intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Carlson is now part of the JPL team tasked with assembling and testing the "head" and "neck" (officially called the Remote Sensing Mast) for the Mars 2020 rover. Carlson jokes that his job is a bit like making and following instructions for assembling IKEA furniture – that is, if the furniture were going to another planet with no option to return for spare parts. With its five cameras that will do everything from guiding the rover to recording ambient sounds to blasting objects with lasers so it can study their chemical composition, the mast will play a key role in the mission's goal of finding evidence for ancient microbial life. Returning JPL intern Evan Kramer met up with Carlson to learn more about his role in readying the rover for its planned February 2021 debut on Mars and about the summer internship that propelled Carlson to where he is now.

What do you do at JPL?

I am a mechanical engineer working on the remote sensing mast for Mars 2020, [NASA's next Mars rover]. The remote sensing mast is the "neck" and the "head" of the rover. Scientifically, it is our vision system for seeing far away and doing remote detecting. So instead of using the drill on the rover to study something up close, the mast uses spectroscopy and lasers to see things that are far away and read their chemical composition.

Four engineers in white garmets stand behind the rover while another stands in front holding out a smartphone to take a selfie

Members of NASA's Mars 2020 project (including Carlson, right) take a moment to capture a selfie after attaching the remote sensing mast to the Mars 2020 rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The mast has lots of instruments on it. On the head, itself, there are five cameras. Two of them are for navigation, [NavCams]. They will guide the rover past obstacles, for example. Then, there are two Mastcam-Zs. On the Curiosity rover, they are called Mastcams. On Mars 2020, they're called Mastcam-Zs, because they have zoom lenses on them. Those cameras will take amazing panorama photographs that we can learn a lot from. Then, we've got SuperCam, which is the big "eyeball." SuperCam shoots a laser that incinerates, or ablates, a far-off target. During that ablation, the camera takes a very quick picture. The color of the flash that the laser makes on the target will be unique to the target's chemical makeup. SuperCam also has a microphone on it, which is new for this mission. It will allow us to hear the wind and the movements of gravel and rocks. And then down on the neck of the remote sensing mast, we've got two wind sensors, 90 degrees apart from each other. One of them is a deployable boom, which can reach out pretty far from the neck and give us measurements of wind direction and velocity. There are also three air temperature sensors, a humidity sensor and a thermal IR sensor. Together, those make up an instrument suite known as MEDA.

What's your role in working with all of these components?

A lot of my time has been devoted to the role of cognizant engineer, which I share with one other person. That's essentially the engineer who's responsible for delivering the hardware to the spacecraft. That includes everything from making sure you have all the nuts and bolts for the assembly – physically counting them and weighing them and recording all the part information and inspection reports – as well as writing the procedures to build everything. So that's like the document that you get with your IKEA furniture that shows how to put the pieces together. Our team is pretty small, so usually, once we've developed these procedures, we go into the cleanroom lab, take the parts and put them all together. On a typical day, I'll usually do a little bit of all of that. And then I provide the oversight to make sure it comes together the way it's supposed to.

See NASA’s next Mars rover quite literally coming together inside a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

You first came to JPL as an intern in summer 2015. What was that experience like?

When I was an intern, I was working on a project that I had no idea existed until I became an intern, and now I can't stop thinking about it. It's called Starshade, and it is a sunflower-shaped device the size of a baseball diamond. It's designed to fly far out in the sky and suppress the light from a distant star so that a space telescope can get a direct image of the planets orbiting the star. Using the same kind of spectroscopy that's in the SuperCam on Mars 2020, scientists can then characterize which elements are in the atmospheres of these planets, called exoplanets. If we could do that, it would be groundbreaking because it could tell us if a distant planet is habitable or maybe even already inhabited.

What part of Starshade were you working on?

The Starshade is made up of two systems, and I was working on both. There's a deployable truss, which is a large hoop that forms the circumference of the giant sunflower shape. That has to fit into a rocket to go up to space. So we needed to figure out how to fit something that can expand out to the size of a baseball diamond into about a four-meter-diameter cylinder. I was working on building and designing that truss structure. The other part was making the sunflower shape so that it suppresses the starlight, and that is in the realm of origami. So I was also working with origami specialists to figure out how to connect this folding object to the truss structure.

What brought you to JPL for your internship?

The first time I ever heard about JPL was when people from the Curiosity rover mission team visited my campus at the University of Colorado Boulder. They talked about the entry, descent and landing process for the mission, and that was the first time I'd ever even really heard about that process.

Seeing the ["7 Minutes of Terror"] video for the first time and hearing how impossible it seems to try to land an SUV-size rover on another planet, I thought, "That's the coolest thing I've ever heard of. I've got to go be a part of that in some way." I didn't even really know or care how I could be helpful. I just knew that's where I wanted to be.

What moments or memories from your internship stand out most?

We were kind of a big intern team. I think there were 13 of us on the Starshade project. There were these days when we would assemble scale models of Starshade. These are enormous carbon-fiber structures that all have to be bonded together with epoxy that you're squirting out of syringes, and it's very hands-on. So all 13 of us were in a kind of assembly line doing this. By the end of the internship, we were competing with each other to see who could do it better, faster, cleaner and all of that. And for me, that was just so fun. I learned a lot about how to work effectively on a team. That's certainly one of the things that makes JPL a special place. No one at JPL would have accomplished what they did without being on an amazing team. That's really the root of our success.

Jeff Carlson stands in the center of a folded metal structure

Carlson poses for a photo in the center of the large hoop that forms the circumference of the Starshade design during his summer internship at JPL in 2015. Image courtesy Jeff Carlson | + Expand image

How did your internship shape your career path and lead to what you're doing now?

When I first started my internship, I thought that what I wanted to do was mostly CAD, [computer-aided design], work, sitting in front of a computer 3D modeling and making drawings. The internship taught me the joys of tinkering with stuff that might go to space. There are so many things to think about, from launch environments to micro-meteoroids to ridiculous temperatures and pressures. It changes the way you think about a problem to be on the formulation side, putting the hardware together. I didn't even know that was a career option for me until I started doing it. My JPL internship really opened my eyes to that. I didn't even know the role that I'm in right now existed.

Did your internship also give you the opportunity to meet people who would potentially become your managers?

Yes. I think one thing that makes JPL really awesome is that if an intern has a really great idea, it doesn't matter that they're a student. They will be listened to with the same openness as if the chief engineer had the same idea. Somebody described JPL to me as a meritocracy, and I think more than any other place I've been, that's true. I've seen it myself. Even as a starting full-time engineer, there are times when I think, “Who am I to suggest this? I don't have as much experience as all these other people.” But I say it because the culture here supports that. And then it affects the way the mission is designed. It changes something important.

Have you had your own interns? If so, what's your mentorship style? What do you hope they take away from the experience?

Yes, I’ve had interns of my own. I tried to emulate my mentors from when I was an intern. Looking back on it now, they are part of what made me really successful – allowing me the freedom to realize that I am smart enough to make decisions. Coming from school, I think interns have this idea that they need to be told what to do because it's like a school assignment. But for some of the tasks that we have going on here, the A, B, and C of getting a job done is not all there is. Sometimes it's up to the intern to determine the path forward. So I try to give my interns enough freedom to make these kinds of decisions. I think the validation that you get from seeing an idea come to fruition is going to make you a much better engineer than if you were just told to do a task and you performed it.

What's your advice for those looking to intern or work at JPL one day?

One thing that was a detriment to me trying to work here was seeing myself as a student, hanging out with adults, or seeing myself as kind of underneath my coworkers. So for an intern in a meeting with other engineers, don't be afraid to speak up, feel confident in the education that you've received.

Lastly, I hear that you write poetry and draw in your free time. Have your experiences at JPL influenced your creative side or vice versa?

Being here has opened my eyes to a lot of things. Since I've started working here, I've opened up more to allow other people's ideas and perspectives to influence my own. Also, JPL encourages creativity. Caltech [which manages JPL for NASA] has an art show every year. I put some pieces in there. I think it's awesome to blend engineering and art. There's also a talent show at JPL every year. I sing in the talent show with a little looper pedal. So JPL encourages and confirms, in my mind, that you don't have to be just an engineer. This is a good place to say, we can do this and that.

Explore More


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, Careers, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Starshade

  • Evan Kramer
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Jose Martinez-Camacho stands in front of a Moon display, featuring a lunar rock sample, in the Visitor Center at JPL.

In high school, science was the last thing on Jose Martinez-Camacho's mind. But one day, he was flipping through his chemistry textbook, and a diagram caught his eye. It described an experiment that was the first to identify the structure of an atom. Martinez-Camacho was amazed that a science experiment could reveal the inner workings of something so mysterious. He was hooked. Now a physics major at Cal Poly Pomona and in his fourth year interning at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Martinez-Camacho is immersed in unveiling the details of other mysterious objects: lunar craters. Using a simulation he developed, Martinez-Camacho is working to understand how the temperatures inside and around craters in the permanently shadowed regions of the Moon might point the way to water ice. We caught up with him to find out more about his internship and his career journey so far.

You've done several internships at JPL, starting in 2015. What are the projects you've worked on?

My first internship in the summer of 2015 was with the Lunar Flashlight mission. The idea of the mission is to reflect sunlight into the permanent shadowed regions of the Moon to detect water ice. My project was testing and characterizing the photodetectors that would be used to identify the water ice. So most of that project involved setting up an experiment to test those detectors.

My next internship was still with the Lunar Flashlight mission, but my project was to model the amount of stray light that the detector was expected to receive from the lunar surface.

After that, I started to work with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Diviner team. [Diviner is an instrument on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that creates detailed daytime and nighttime temperature maps of the Moon.] In that project, I was working with Catherine Elder to validate one of her algorithms that can identify the abundance and size distribution of lunar rocks in a single pixel of an image taken by Diviner. So I used the algorithm to analyze the rock populations around the Surveyor landers, which took images on the lunar surface that we could use to validate our results.

What I'm working on now is 2D thermal modeling of craters in the polar regions of the Moon. The end goal is to better understand the thermal environments of the Moon's permanently shadowed regions, which can harbor water ice. Because the stability of water ice is very sensitive to temperatures, knowing the thermal environment can tell us a lot about where these water-ice deposits might exist.

Bright greens, purples and red indicate temperatures of craters on a section of the Moon in this data image

This temperature map from the Diviner instrument on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the locations of several intensely cold impact craters that are potential cold traps for water ice as well as a range of other icy compounds commonly observed in comets. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/UCLA | + Expand image

What is your average day like on your current project?

I'm using MATLAB to write code [that I use to model the craters]. I wrote the code from scratch. Right now I'm at the point where I've written the program, I've gone through most of the debugging and the derivations of the equations and picking the algorithm, so I'm just running the model and waiting for results. So an average day would be to come in and run the model for different cases. There's a range of crater diameters and a range of latitudes where permanent shadows exist, so I run the model for these different cases, wait for the results and interpret the results at the end of the simulations. I also do some debugging now and then to deal with problems in the code.

What got you interested in a science career?

I think it happened in my junior year of high school. I was always disinterested in school and never paid attention. In chemistry class, we were learning about the atom, and for some reason, I opened up my chemistry book at home and started looking at the diagrams. I found a section on the Rutherford gold foil experiment, which showed that atoms consist of a tightly packed positive nucleus surrounded by electrons. I was amazed that someone could deduce that from a simple experiment. So that sparked my interest in science. After that, I started to read about chemistry and astronomy and all types of science. That was the pivotal moment.

How did you pursue that career path, and were there any challenges along the way?

I knew I'd have to go to community college because, at the time, my GPA wasn't going to get me anywhere. So I knew I had to start at the very, very beginning. But I had a very clear plan: Just keep studying, keep getting good grades until you get to where you want to be.

Sometimes students – especially community college students – feel intimidated applying for JPL internships, even though they should absolutely apply! Did you feel that way at all, and if so, how did you overcome that fear?

I was almost not going to submit my application just because I thought I wasn't good enough to intern at JPL. But ultimately, I had nothing to lose if I got rejected. It would be the same outcome as if I didn't apply, so I submitted my application. And I was really surprised when I got the acceptance letter.

What was your first experience at JPL like?

Everything was super-unfamiliar. I was in a lab, working on a science instrument, and I wasn't an instruments guy. But I got a lot of help from other people who were on the project. Even though it was difficult, it made it very enjoyable to always have someone there with the right answer or a suggestion.

How has your time at JPL molded your career path?

I think it established it. Next year, I'm going to Southern Methodist University to start a geophysics Ph.D. and my graduate advisor is someone who I met at one of the Diviner team meetings. Being at JPL has made that connection for me. And through JPL, I found what I want to do as a career.

What is your ultimate career goal?

After grad school, it would be really, really nice to come back here as a research scientist.

Are you interested in lunar research or anything planetary?

I think I'm really biased toward the Moon just because it's been my focus throughout my JPL internships. But I could see myself studying other planets or bodies. Mercury is very similar to the Moon. Anything without an atmosphere will do. That's what I'm comfortable with. If you add an atmosphere, the science is different. Ultimately, I think I'm interested in planetary science; it's just a matter of learning new science and learning about new planetary bodies.

Well, that leads nicely into my fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

I think I'd go somewhere around Saturn, or a moon of Saturn. Looking up from one of Saturn's moons would be a pretty amazing sight, with Saturn and its rings on the horizon.

Going back to your career path so far, did you have any mentors along the way?

In high school, I don't think so. I just needed to graduate. But in community college, I was part of this program called EOPS, or Extended Opportunity Programs and Services. It's for minorities and disadvantaged groups. There's counseling involved with people who knew what someone like me might be struggling with. There was that support group throughout my time at Citrus College. And there was also the Summer Research Experience Program [at Citrus.] That's the one I applied to in order to get the summer internship here. It was through Citrus College's partnership with JPL. One of the people who was in charge of that, Dr. Marianne Smith, she was always encouraging me, saying, "Just because you come from a community college doesn't mean you're any less than someone who is at UCLA or any other university." So that was another source of support.

Did you see advantages to going the community college route?

Yeah, definitely. It's a smaller community, so you get to form connections a lot easier than you would at a larger college. The quality of education there is probably on par with other universities. So, there was certainly no disadvantage. And then there was that advantage of the smaller community. It's more personalized and easier to get help.

What would you recommend to other students in community college who are interested in coming to JPL?

Apply to the program. Take advantage of the summers and apply to internships. At Citrus College they have the Summer Research Experience Program, and they probably have something similar at other community colleges. Take advantage of that. If I hadn't applied to that program that summer, my life would be totally different. Those decisions can shape your future.


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, College, Internships, Interns, Science, Moon, Community College, Students

  • Kim Orr
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Brittney Cooper stands in a sandy area holding a controller attached to a rover

Brittney Cooper loves studying weather – and she's taking that passion all the way to Mars. A graduate student at York University in Toronto, Cooper has spent the past two years working with the science team for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. In January, she authored her first science paper on a study she designed with the Curiosity team that looked at how clouds scatter light and what that tells us about the shapes of their ice crystals. Despite her involvement in the Curiosity mission, the Canada native has never actually been to a NASA center. But that's about to change this summer when she'll embark on her first internship at JPL in Pasadena, California. We caught up with Cooper to find out what she's looking forward to most about her internship and how she's planning to take her studies of Martian clouds even farther.

You're currently earning your master's at York University in Toronto. What are you studying and what got you interested in that field?

I'm doing my master's in Earth and space science. But if you really want an interesting story [laughs] … I've always been interested in astronomy, space and science, but I also really love art. Coming to the end of high school, I realized that maybe it was going to be too hard for me to pursue science. Maybe I was a little scared and I didn't really think I was going to be able to do it. So I went to university for photography for two years. After two years, I realized photography wasn't challenging me in the right ways and wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I left. I did night school to get credits for calculus and all the grade-12 physics and chemistry that I needed to pursue a degree in atmospheric science, which is not even remotely astronomy, but I've also always loved weather – pretty much anything in the sky. I still had a passion for astronomy, so I started volunteering at the Allan I. Carswell observatory at York. There, I met a professor who I ended up doing research with for many years. He told me, "There's the field called planetary science, where you can study the atmospheres of other planets and you can kind of marry those two fields that you're interested in [astronomy and atmospheric science]." So I ended up adding an astronomy major.

Brittney Copper stands in the snow surrounded by pine trees and holds out a device to measure the flux of solar radiation

Cooper measures the downward flux of solar radiation during a winter snow survey. Image courtesy Brittney Cooper | + Expand image

Later, I started doing research with this professor, John Moores, as an undergrad. In my last year, there was a Ph.D. student who was a participating scientist on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission and he was graduating. John had said something along the lines of, "There's an opening, and I know it's always been your dream to work in mission control, so do you want to be on the mission?" And I was, like, "Yes, I definitely do!" I couldn't believe it. And I was never intending to do a master's, but then I realized I really loved the work I was doing, working on constraining physical properties of Martian water-ice clouds using the Mars Curiosity rover. We got to design this observation, which ran on the rover, and then I got to work with the data from it, which was really cool. So I stayed on to do my master's, and I'm still on the mission, which is pretty awesome.

In January you authored your first science paper on that research. Tell me more about that.

A black and white animated image showing light, wispy clouds moving across the Martian sky

Wispy clouds float across the Martian sky in this accelerated sequence of images from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/York University | › Full image and caption

My research focuses on the physical scattering properties of Martian water-ice clouds. A lot of people don't even realize that there are clouds on Mars, which I totally get because Mars doesn't have much of an atmosphere. But it does have enough of an atmosphere to create very thin, wispy, almost cirrus-like clouds similar to the ones we have on Earth. They're made up of small, water-ice crystals. These kinds of clouds do have a noticeable impact on Earth's climate, so we have now started thinking about what these clouds are doing in Mars' climate. The scattering properties can tell us a bit about that. They can tell us how much radiation is scattered back to space by these clouds or kept in Mars' atmosphere and whether or not we can see really fun things like halos, glories and different types of optical phenomena that we can see here on Earth.

We designed this observation that uses the Navcam imager on Curiosity. The engineering folks with the mission helped us design it. I got to present at a science discussion, which was superscary, but everyone was so kind. And then the observation was approved to run on Mars once a week from September 2017 to March 2018. During this observation window, Curiosity would take images of the sky to capture clouds at as many different scattering angles as possible. Once we got all the data back, we were able to constrain the dominant ice crystal shapes in the clouds based upon this thing called the phase function, which tells you how these clouds scatter light and radiation. I was the lead author on the research paper that came from that, and it got accepted. We started working on this right when I was really new to the mission, and it was my first paper. I couldn't believe everyone wasn't, like, "Who the heck are you? Why are we going to let you do anything?" But everyone was so kind, and it was just such a great experience.

What was the hardest part about writing that first paper?

The hardest part was probably just getting over the fear of thinking people aren't going to listen to you or you aren't going to be smart enough or you won't be able to answer questions. It was really just getting over my own fears and worries and not holding myself back because of them. I have a really great mentor who pushed me to do all these things, so I was able to suck it up and say, "If he believes in me and he thinks I can do it, maybe he's right." Every time I did a presentation or I would talk about the observation or try to advocate for it, I was just met with such positivity that I was, like, "OK, these fears are rooted in nothing."

In July, you're coming to JPL for your first internship here. What will you be working on?

Yes, I'm so excited! I'll be working with two scientists, Michael Mischna and Manuel de la Torre Juarez. We're going to be working with the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station, or REMS, which is an instrument on Curiosity that measures the temperature, relative humidity and pressure around the rover on Mars. From those measurements, we're going to try to infer the presence of clouds at night. So far, the way we've used Curiosity to study clouds is with optical instruments [or cameras]. So we take pictures of the clouds. But that's not really something we can do at night. So using REMS and its temperature sensors at night, we can try to see if clouds around the rover are emitting infrared radiation, heating up the atmosphere around the rover. We can try to detect them that way. So that's what we're going to try to do – look for some patterns and see what we can come up with. We'll also be comparing what we find with data from NASA's Mars Climate Sounder, which is in orbit around Mars and takes nighttime measurements of the atmosphere.

What are you most excited about coming to JPL?

I would be lying if I said it wasn't just getting to come to a NASA center – especially as a Canadian. It's every little space enthusiast's dream. I'm also excited to meet all the people who I've been working with for the last two years. The people are such an awesome part of this mission that I've been a part of. So I'm looking forward to meeting them in person and working with them in a closer way.

What do you see as the ultimate goal of your research?

We're just trying to better understand Mars. It's kind of a crazy place. There is a lot of evidence that shows us that there's a lot more going on than we know now and it's just about trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. There are also a lot of similarities to Earth. So we can try to take what we learn about Mars and apply it to our planet as well.

What's your ultimate career goal?

What I would really love is to work in spacecraft operations. I absolutely love working in science and working with data, but getting a chance to be a part of this mission and do operations – be part of a team and do multidisciplinary work – it's so exciting, and it's something that I never thought that I'd get to experience. And now that I've had a bit of a taste, I'm wanting more. So that's what I'm hoping for in the future.

Do you ever think about how you moved away from studying photography but are using photography to do science on Mars?

Yes! Every once in a while, that hits me, and I think to myself, "That's so cool." It's just very, very cool. Ten years ago, I never thought I'd be where I am now. But also just to know that there's that connection, that I'm working with visual data, with optical data – I don't think it's a coincidence. I really love working with images, so I think it's pretty cool that I get to do that.

Just one last fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Without a doubt, it would have to be [Saturn's moon] Titan. I actually would probably go there to study the atmosphere. The first research project that I ever did was trying to find methane and ethane fog on Titan and the surface data was quite limited, so I would like to go there. I want to see water-ice rocks. I want to see methane lakes and methane rain, set up a little vacation spot there [laughs].


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, College, Internships, Interns, Students, Science, Mars, Rovers, Weather

  • Kim Orr
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JPL interns Heather Lethcoe and Lauren Berger pose with the InSight engineering model in its testbed at JPL

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 Unseen

Selecting 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.

Matt Golombek sits in his office in the science building at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory surrounded by images and maps of Mars amassed over a 20-year career as the "landing-site dude." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

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.

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 Perfect

To 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.

Rachel Hausmann in the museum at JPL

Rachel Hausmann started with Golombek's team in June 2017 and until recently has been charged with finalizing the map that will be used to land InSight on Mars. Image courtesy: Rachel Hausmann | + Expand image

Lauren Berger stands in the InSight testbed at JPL

Lauren Berger, the longest tenured of the intern team, says everything she knew about Mars before interning at JPL came from a picture book she checked out at the library where her mom works. Now, she's an expert in identifying the sand-dune-like features considered hazardous to Mars rovers. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

Heather Lethcoe points at a Mars globe

Even when it was clear Heather Lethcoe's JPL internship was a sure thing, she says she didn't want to be too sure of herself and kept telling people she had a "potential internship." But as the praises roll in, she's learning to have more confidence in herself. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

“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.”


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: Women in STEM, Interns, Internships, Higher Education, College, Geology, Science, Rovers, Landers, Mars, InSight, Mars 2020

  • Kim Orr
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Allison Ayad in her workspace at JPL

The Starshade project aims to do pretty much what the name suggests: suppress the light from distant stars so scientists can learn more about the planets that surround them – including whether they’re likely to support life. In practice, it requires building a giant, precisely shaped structure that can unfurl from a relatively tiny package and fly in perfect sequence with a space telescope. Interns have been key to making the idea a reality. The team has brought in more than 40 interns in the past seven years. We already caught up with three-time Starshade intern Christopher Esquer-Rosas, who is using his origami skills to help a full-scale model of the giant sunflower-shaped structure unfurl. Meanwhile, intern Allison Ayad, a mechanical engineering student at Pasadena City College, is creating a working miniature model to narrow in on the design. Fellow intern Evan Kramer met up with Ayad to find out how she’s contributing to the project and how she’s bringing what she’s learning back to school.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on a project called Starshade, which is a 26-meter diameter, flower-shaped structure we want to send to space to help us get images of exoplanets, [planets outside our solar system]. With these images, we could learn more about exoplanets and see if they could potentially harbor life.

So Starshade is a sort of spacecraft?

Yeah, it is! Starshade would fly out and position itself between a space telescope and a star. Its shape would suppress the light from the star so the spacecraft could get direct images of the exoplanets around it. It's similar to when you try to take a picture outside, and the Sun washes out the image. If you block the light from the Sun, then you can see everything in more detail. That's pretty much what Starshade would do.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Every day is very different. What I am working on is making a mini, fully deployable Starshade for interactive purposes, so we can show all the different stages of deployment. It will sort of be the first of its kind.

When I come in, I usually do work on my computer with [software] like Solidworks. Then, I do a lot of rapid prototyping with the use of 3D printers and laser cutters to test out all the little, moving components that are going into the real model.

I spend some of my time helping with the big structure that's out here. [She points to the warehouse-like space where the team is assembling a full-scale version of Starshade, which is about the size of a baseball diamond fully unfurled.] But most of the time, I'm working on the mini one. At least once a day, I’ll talk with my mentor, David Webb, about the ideas that I have on how to make things work. We'll bounce ideas off each other, then I'll have stuff to think about for the next day.

Allison Ayad stands under the support structure for a full-scale model of Starshade

Ayad stands under the support structure for the full-scale model of Starshade. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Evan Kramer | + Expand image

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

I’ve been here for a year and a half now, and I think the Starshade lab is the coolest at JPL, but I'm a little bit biased. It's really cool because we have a bunch of prototypes everywhere, so you get to see what Starshade would look like in real life. And there are a bunch of interactive models that you can play with to see all the different deployment stages.

How do you think you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

The full Starshade isn’t really finished being designed yet, so a lot of the problems that [the team that is building the full-scale model] is facing, I'm also facing with the mini one. The ideas that I'm thinking through could potentially help with the real flight-model design.

How has the work you’ve done here influenced you back at school?

When I first started interning here, I actually didn't have a lot of the core class requirements [for my major] done. So a lot of the terms and concepts that people were using at JPL were still new to me. Then when I took the classes, all [the lessons from my internship] came back, and I was like, whoa, I already kind of learned this stuff and got a hands-on approach to it. I'm a very hands-on learner, so having that previous experience and then learning more of the math behind it helped with that learning process.

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

I’d like to go to Mars just because we're so close to doing it. It'd be cool to see what's there. I personally think there's a really good chance there was once life on Mars. If I could go and see for myself, that would be pretty awesome.


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: Women in STEM, Internships, Interns, Students, College, STEM, Opportunities, Starshade, Exoplanets, Engineering

  • Evan Kramer
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Jasmine Cameron poses in the viewing gallery of the In-Situ Instruments Laboratory at JPL

There is still a lot of mystery around what exactly causes aurora, the swirling spectacles of light that grace Earth’s southern and northern high-latitude skies. So, this summer, Jasmine Cameron, a JPL intern and computer science major at Howard University, helped push aurora science further by developing an algorithm to detect the phenomena in video taken from a weather balloon. Fellow intern Evan Kramer caught up with Cameron to ask how learning about aurora might help the average person and what it’s like to work with NASA scientists and engineers.

What are you working on at JPL?

My project is in computer science. What we’re trying to do is image aurora, so your northern and southern lights, during the day time. A near-infrared camera goes up on a weather balloon and takes a video of the sky at up to 30 frames per second. It stores the collected data and sends back video containing auroras. What we want to do is develop an efficient, real-time algorithm based on machine learning technology that can identify frames with aurora in them so that we can collect science data about these phenomena. Our algorithm needs to give the scientists as many true-positives, or useful images with auroras in them, as possible so they can better understand what they are. It also needs to fit on the computer aboard the balloon so that it will be power efficient and high performance.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

How might understanding aurora help the average person one day?

Auroras are the result of a complicated interaction between the Sun and Earth. This interaction is a fundamental cosmic process that will affect space weather, which in turn will affect our daily life in terms of radiation exposure, satellite and radio communication, power systems, and so on. Studying aurora could help us better understand and forecast space weather.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I come in and check my email to see if my mentor has sent me any new data to process. Then I’ll get to work on algorithms I think would work as a detection system for identifying the presence of aurora in images. There are a lot of different machine-learning algorithms out there that we can test.

How does the algorithm work?

The algorithm is based on machine learning technology. You create a model with unknown parameters. You then take the data and set it up between training data and testing data. Your training data is a bunch of base images with aurora in them and defined parameters used to detect aurora. Then, you develop the algorithm to look for those parameters in your test data, and it will conclude if there is an aurora or not in each of the test images. Then, you use a validation directory with only true-positives to compare the images in your test data that were identified as having aurora in them to actual aurora images to see how well your algorithm is working. My job is to see what algorithm works the best in identifying aurora in the test images.

Jasmine Cameron sits at her computer at JPL

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Evan Kramer | + Expand image

Did you have to do any research or special preparation before you started on the project?

Yes, I had to read a lot, especially about the motivations behind why we’re doing this work and how we’re going to accomplish our goals. I had to read the technical documentation about different algorithms and different systems that are used to process the images and identify aurora. There’s definitely a lot of reading involved every day, and I frequently ask the people I work with questions.

What’s the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience you’ve had so far?

I got to see different hardware and test beds and even mission control where they control the Deep Space Network, [a system of antennas around the world that are used to communicate with spacecraft]. That was really cool.

What about the people here? What’s the environment like at JPL?

Everybody is kind of a nerd. Usually when I’m talking about my internship experience to friends back home, I have to edit out things I’d normally say because most of them would find it boring, but here I’m frequently asked what I work on in a genuine way. I know I can always ask anyone anything about their project and for help on my own project. It’s a great environment and I’m learning a lot.

How do you feel you’re contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

Just being able to do this type of work on aurora detection – it has never been done before. Being able to contribute to making data collection and analysis more efficient makes scientists’ lives a lot easier and helps us learn more about these phenomena.

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

A black hole, just to see what happens. I’d want to see how destructive it is and how dark it is.


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: Women in STEM, Internships, Interns, College, Students, Opportunities, Science, Careers

  • Evan Kramer
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Ryan Loper holds a optical test-bed component he designed during his internship at JPL.

Update: Sept. 4, 2018 – Ryan Loper was offered and accepted a full-time position with the team he's interned with for the past two summers. He'll start his new role at the laboratory after he graduates in September 2019!


During his seven years in the Marine Corps, traveling around the world, Ryan Loper saw how much an education could change a person’s life. When his service ended, he enrolled in community college, just to, “take a couple of classes and see,” he said – until it ended up changing the course of his life as well. Now a student at Stanford, a two-time JPL intern, and an alumnus of and volunteer for the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, Loper is helping build a test bed for a next-generation space telescope. We caught up with him to find out how he made the transition from military to student life and what he hopes his future at JPL will bring.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on an optical test bed, where we’re trying to make a telescope similar to one we would put in space, but a much smaller size.

What's the ultimate goal of the project?

We’re preparing for the next-generation space telescope. We want to get to what they call “first light,” where you get light to come through the telescope and detect it. Eventually, the team wants to take [the telescope] out and observe a star with it and be able to make measurements.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

What's a typical day like for you?

They're almost never the same. Just about every day, we have a morning meeting with the principal investigator, the systems engineer for the project and two other interns working on the same project. We talk about where we got yesterday, what our plan is for the day and things we might have to consider going forward. We're producing drawings now on some of the test-bed parts. We're trying to find the right design. Then, as much as I can, I try to get out onto the lab and meet new people and reconnect with some of the people who I met during my internship last year.

You were in the Marines before going to college. Can you tell me a bit about that experience and how it shaped your career path?

Yes. I did very poorly in high school. I didn't have anybody in my family who went to college, and I didn't see the benefit of an education. So two weeks after I graduated, I went to boot camp with the Marine Corps. I spent seven years in the Marines, where I got to travel a lot and go to different parts of the world. I saw how much a lack of an education could hurt an entire group of people. I also saw how a little bit of an education could give someone more opportunities than they ever had. I also happened to have really good mentors while I was in the Marines who pushed me to learn more than what was required. It instilled this hunger for knowledge that's really helped me be successful as a student and ultimately lead to me being able to start at community college and transfer to Stanford to finish my undergraduate degree. It’s also what makes me really enjoy JPL, because it's that same type of mentality here. There are a lot of really cool things going on here, but it's not like we just sit back and watch the cool stuff happen. We're doing the stuff no one has done before, and we’re continuing to learn and iterate.

It’s often challenging for veterans to take that next step after they return from their service. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

It's really difficult when you're first leaving the service because you've been surrounded by a lot of like-minded people in the sense that you have a mission and you're executing that mission to the best of your team's ability. I didn't struggle with this because I happened to go to a community college that had a great veteran population, but some friends of mine who went to different schools felt like there wasn't that camaraderie. I think that's the biggest thing that hinders us when we come out. We're used to that sense of camaraderie and then we go to a place where that's not there, and it leaves you feeling alone.

Ryan Loper with his wife and kids.

Loper poses for a photo with his wife and kids on a trip to Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy of Ryan Loper. | + Expand image

Some of the situations that you face and see while you're deployed in the military are not what the normal 18-,19-, 20-year-old sees, so it makes it hard to talk to others. I had a lot of trouble with that. I was very antisocial when I first came out of the service, so I did a lot of counseling through [Veterans Affairs]. My wife has been a huge help and has been very patient with me working through it. [It was also helpful] having a good group of friends who are veterans, who I got together and studied with. I think the biggest thing you can do is try to find other veterans or just people you can have in your corner because it does get difficult.

Did you pick the community college you went to because it had a large veteran population?

No. When I first got out, I wasn't sure I was going to go to college. I figured I would take one or two classes [at a community college] and see how it went. My wife went to get information and sign me up and told me there's this whole veterans resource center and that I should go meet this guy Jordan. The first time I went, I was just super uncomfortable. I was there for five or 10 minutes, and I left. I think I made it halfway through the semester and the classes started to get really difficult. So, I finally went back and met Jordan and the community there and right away got involved. I ended up becoming the vice president of our student veterans organization during my time there. But I didn't choose the school because they have a good veteran population. The location and timing just worked out really well.

What made you decide that you wanted to study STEM?

Growing up, I always got in trouble for tinkering. I grew up on a tiny farm. We didn't have any money, but we always had broken stuff lying around. So I would take stuff apart and try to put it together with other things. And then I've always been interested in space and military aircraft. I worked on military aircraft for part of my career. I've just always had that desire to poke my head into things and figure out how they work and take things apart. So STEM kind of seemed like the right thing to get into. It gives me an ability to dig into math and physics, which I enjoy, but also poke around with the creative side of things.

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/images/news/ryanloper_action-web.jpg

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

When you started at community college and took those first couple courses, were they STEM-related?

Since I'd been out of school for so long, I had to take a test to see where I would start. I started in trigonometry, which is low on the totem pole for engineering majors, but I had an amazing trig professor, Professor Marquez. He walked into this trig-prep class and said, “Don't think of trig as a subject you have to learn in math, think of it as a superpower.” He taught us to think, not to repeat. So later on, it made other classes much easier.

This is your second internship at JPL, and before that, you were here as part of the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars, or NCAS, workshop. Can you talk a little bit about that and why you've continued to come back to JPL?

I have a friend, Dave, who's also here [as an intern]. He was at the community college I went to. He told me how he was coming to JPL for this program called NCAS. I went online and signed up for it. I did the online class and got invited to come to JPL [for the NCAS onsite workshop]. During the workshop, I fell in love with everything that we got exposed to: the missions that NASA was doing and what JPL was working on. We had guest speakers come in and interns talk about their experiences at JPL. It wasn't necessarily that I thought, that’s the job I want to do. It was, those are the people who I want to work with.

Ryan Loper poses in front of a light sculpture at JPL with other NCAS participants

Loper (left) first came to JPL as part of the NCAS workshop for community college students. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

After that program, I stayed in contact with my mentor, Otto Polanco. He offered me an opportunity to come to JPL that following summer. I thought, I'll probably go there to do all the stuff that he doesn't want to do, like Excel sheets and trade studies. But then, I showed up, and I was basically handed the keys to the Ferrari and told to go drive. It was the first time with a work experience, especially an internship, where I came in and it was like, “Here's an engineering problem, go figure it out.” I loved it.

I was also invited that summer to be a student aid for NCAS at JPL, so I got to be behind the scenes and see all of the work that the JPL Education Office puts into the program. They do a fantastic job and it makes it that much more special for all the students.

What's been the most unique JPL or NASA experience you've had during your time here?

The most unique is being surrounded by people whose work you're reading [in school] and who are guiding what industry is doing – but they're approachable. Like yesterday, I sat with Adam Steltzner, who lead the entry, descent and landing for the Mars rover Curiosity. I had read his book, and last summer, I ran into him and briefly introduced myself and asked if he wanted to meet. He met me for coffee, and then he met me again this year and we got to catch up.

For me, a big thing that I'm considering is the work-life balance because I have a wife and two children. At JPL, you have that opportunity to do really amazing things and work with amazing people and get to be a husband and a father. And you don't have to sacrifice that to do something amazing. That's been unique to me – to find a place that has the culture fit that I've been looking for.

How do you feel you're contributing overall to NASA/JPL missions and science?

Hopefully, the project that I’m working on will help ensure success for the next space-based telescope. I feel as though I get to be part of the future, the next generation of space explorers and what we're going to find out there.

What's your ultimate career goal?

To be an NCAS mentor. That would mean I'd have to be a full-time JPL employee in a position where I'd be able to dedicate some of my time to support the next group of NCAS students, who are going to become interns and then come to JPL full time.

Last question: If you could go anywhere in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Ooh, if I could go anywhere in space? I would want to go to the farthest point in space from Earth and look back to realize how insignificant it is and how much I take for granted.


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: Interns, Internships, Veterans, College, STEM, STEM Education

  • Kim Orr
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Interns and their mentors celebrated a successful summer at a mentor-appreciation event held at JPL.

When the new crop of summer interns started showing up at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, this past June, they joined the more than 2,000-plus students placed across NASA’s 10 field centers, instantly becoming part of the NASA family.

“They may not be together geographically, but these interns are getting this unique experience all over the country,” said Katherine Brown, public affairs officer for education at NASA Headquarters.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

But between the challenging workloads, exciting education opportunities and inspiring culture at JPL, interns who come to the laboratory often see only one piece of the NASA puzzle. Intern and University of Colorado Boulder astrophysics student Maya Yanez has spent the past two summers at JPL – one working on describing potential radical chemistry on Kuiper Belt objects, and one helping to identify potential landing sites on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

“You get the chance to be a little sprocket in this massive machine of making things happen at JPL, but then you can kind of lose sight of the fact that JPL is one component of NASA, and there are hundreds of interns at other centers doing comparable things,” Yanez said.

This year, NASA Headquarters’ internship and communications coordinator Christine Linsinbigler saw opportunities to bring the centers together. She organized an agency-wide live feed of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s intern town hall at Goddard Space Flight Center on July 26, and an ISS downlink Q&A – where interns got to pre-record questions for astronauts to answer live from the space station – on July 30.

“With National Intern Day on July 26, we were able to roll the events into one big intern week,” Linsinbigler said.

Answers from the Administrator

This was the first year a NASA administrator conducted a NASA-wide town hall, where interns from all of the centers could submit questions in short videos. Yanez was selected to live-tweet Bridenstine’s responses from the JPL Education Office’s @NASAJPL_Edu handle so students, JPLers and members of the public could see some of the responses.

“The administrators’ town hall was really important because, for the first time, I had an opportunity as an undergrad to ask about our future and the future of space funding,” said Yanez, who also hopes to one day run for office. “This is a person who has power over our future. I think it’s important to keep that communication between science and politics.”

JPL intern Maya Yanez live tweets from the JPL Watch Party for NASA's Internships Town Hall with Administrator Jim Bridenstine

Yanez hosted a takeover of the @NASAJPL_Edu Twitter account during the NASA Internships Town Hall with Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Yanez was also appreciative of the administrator’s openness to discuss inclusion and diversity in the field, and how NASA plans to maintain its current programs.

“I’m half Mexican, a female in STEM, a first-generation college student, and low income, so I check off a lot of those representative boxes,” Yanez said. “It was nice that he spent as much time on that question as he did. He talked about how it mattered to him and how it should matter to all of us.”

At NASA Headquarters, inclusion and diversity within NASA starts with the intern program, which saw its largest and most diverse applicant pool of interns this summer. Brown said it followed a concerted effort of making the public aware that an internship at JPL, Langley or Johnson is more than just for STEM students – there are opportunities in communications, human resources, education and other fields that are all relevant to how the agency runs.

“We’ve showcased interns on our social media, we held a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ Q&A with Johnson Space Center Flight Director Allison Bollinger, and we’re hoping that including more events like the administrator town hall and ISS downlink will continue to attract a diverse group to NASA,” Brown said.

Questions to Space

When JPL intern Zachary Luppen heard about the ISS downlink – and that he would have a chance to ask an astronaut a question – he already had pages of questions lined up.

An intern takes a photo at the ISS Downlink watch party at JPL

A watch party was held at JPL for an ISS downlink with NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

Zachary Luppen stands in an anechoic chamber at JPL

Zachary Luppen stands in an anechoic chamber at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Christopher Jia-Kuan Yen poses with his mentor, Abigail Fraeman, during a mentor appreciation event held at JPL

Christopher Jia-Kuan Yen poses with his mentor, Abigail Fraeman, during a mentor appreciation event held at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

“I had always wanted to ask an astronaut something, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it,” said Luppen, who is entering his senior year as an astronomy physics major at the University of Iowa. “I really want to go into space, and here I suddenly have this opportunity to throw a question at an astronaut and get it answered.”

The pre-recorded video questions from interns across NASA centers were played during the ISS downlink on July 30, and JPL interns gathered to hear astronaut Ricky Arnold’s responses. Luppen asked Arnold if there were any specific pointers he could give NASA interns who want to be astronauts themselves, and go to the ISS, the Moon or even Mars.

“The temptation is to specialize early, and it’s great to find your passion and pursue it, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture,” Arnold said. “NASA is looking for people with very diverse backgrounds, who have done a lot of different things in different environments with different people.”

Luppen said the ISS downlink was special, as it was one of many “bucket list” items he was able to check off during his summer at JPL, but the work he conducted at the laboratory was more important to his future. Over his 10 weeks at JPL, Luppen worked on test procedures for the dual-frequency radar instrument (REASON) slated to ride aboard NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft. That allowed him to connect with a group of employees who are really doing what he wants to do.

“At Iowa, we’re building parts of the Europa [Clipper mission] there too, but we’re not working on spacecraft to the degree that JPL is,” Luppen said. “I’m here with like-minded people, fantastic scientists and engineers who are working on these projects, and it’s just great to finally be at a center where it’s so productive. It’s almost like chaos, but it’s so cool. I mean, how many missions did we have launch this summer? So, it’s just like, we’re so busy, and I’m getting to be a part of it this summer.”

Intern Christopher Jia-Kuan Yen, a senior geology-chemistry student at Brown University, spent his summer working with Deputy Project Scientist Abigail Fraeman on remote sensing and imaging instruments aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. As for the question he asked of astronaut Ricky Arnold, it was – of course – imagery based.

“I wanted to know, based on what he’s seen from the windows of the ISS, where he would most like to visit on Earth,” Yen said.

Arnold responded that the list seems to get longer every day he’s on the station, but the mountains of Peru, Chile and Argentina have caught his eye. “I guess I’ll have to head down there and check it out someday,” Yen said with a smile. In retrospect, Yen viewed the ISS Downlink as one more example of how special interning at JPL can be.

“There are just so many things going on here,” he said. “Between the work you’re doing, the lectures – I mean, we had the Mars helicopter team present to us – and the events like the ISS Downlink, I don’t think you’re getting opportunities like those at your university internship.”

This summer, 400 JPL employees participated as mentors, providing guidance to the 700 interns working in various fields across the laboratory.

To learn more about this year’s interns, visit:


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: Interns, Internships, Student Programs, STEM, STEM Education, College Students

  • Taylor Hill
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