Deciding where to land on Mars has always meant striking the right balance between potential science wins and the risk of mission failure. But new technology that will allow NASA's next Mars rover, Perseverance, to adjust its trajectory to the safest spot within an otherwise riskier landing area is giving science its biggest edge yet. This past summer, it was intern Tiffany Shi's task to help prepare the new technology, called the Lander Vision System, for its debut on Mars. Analyzing data from test flights in California's Death Valley, the Stanford University student joined the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to make sure the new landing system will work as designed, guiding the Perseverance rover to a safe landing as the spacecraft speeds toward the surface into Mars' Jezero Crater. We caught up with Shi to find out what it was like to work on the technology, how she managed the 8-to-5 and how she found a new approach to problem solving.
What are you working on at JPL?
I'm working with the Mars 2020 mission, building the lander system for the Perseverance Mars rover. This is new technology in that [as the rover is landing on Mars] it is going to be able to look down at the surface below and figure out where is the safest place to land within the chosen area. Because of this technology, we're going to be able to land in a place that's more geologically and scientifically interesting than anywhere else we've been on Mars.
How did previous Mars landings work?
Before, it was only really safe to land if we picked a huge, flat area and programmed the spacecraft to land somewhere in there. But for the Mars 2020 mission, the spacecraft will take images of the terrain below as it descends into the atmosphere and will match those images to reference maps that we have from the work of previous missions. This will allow us to autonomously detect potential landing hazards and divert our spacecraft from them. In other words, the spacecraft is going to be able to look below and find the safest place to land in an area that's generally more hazardous [than what previous rovers have landed in].
What is your average day like on the project?
My average day consists of coming here at 8. That is very new for me [laughs]. I sit in the basement with two office mates, and we each work on our own things. I'm doing error analysis to find any bugs in the Lander Vision System, which is what will be used to land the rover on Mars. The algorithm for the landing system is pretty much written, and I'm analyzing the field-test data that they got from the tests that were done in Death Valley in February. Both my office mates are also working on the Lander Vision System, but they're not on the same exact project. They are all super-nice and helpful, and we all talk about our work, so it's a lot of fun.
Tell me more about the field tests and how you're analyzing the results.
In February, the team took a helicopter and they attached a copy of the Lander Vision System to the front. The helicopter did a bunch of nosedives and spirals over the terrain, which is really similar to what the rover will see on Mars. The goal is to see how accurate our predictions are for our algorithm relative to our reference maps. We're using the tests to improve our algorithm before the spacecraft launches.
What are you studying at Stanford?
I'm not sure what my major will be yet. I don't have to declare it until the end of my second year. I've only just finished my freshman year. I'm thinking maybe computer science or a mix of computer science and philosophy, because I really like both.
What got you interested in those majors?
I did debate in high school, and a lot of debaters use philosophy to argue different perspectives. So that's what got me started.
What about the computer science side?
I was in Girls Who Code while I was in high school, and there were JPL mentors who came to my school every Friday and taught us everything that we wanted to know. It was a super-fun place, super-inclusive. You see a lot of shy girls who don't normally talk in classes really open up. They had great debates, great questions, and it was just really cool to see.
Had you had any experience coding before that?
No, but I started taking some classes after that, and I did an internship at Caltech my junior year.
What was the internship at Caltech?
It was actually with Christine Moran, who now works at JPL. When she was doing her postdoc at Caltech, she brought in 12 high-school student interns through a program called Summer App Space. I worked in a team that classified galaxies into 36 different categories using training and test images from an online machine-learning community.
Very cool! What has been the most uniquely JPL or NASA experience that you've had while you've been here?
I went to see the rover being built in the clean room with my mentor, and that was just surreal. Even though I am sure my contributions are going to be very small, I think it's wild that I am actually working on something that's going to Mars.
Has your internship opened your eyes to any potential career paths?
I haven't taken any aeronautics and astronautics classes, and I think I might see if I'm interested in studying that. It is so interesting working on something that is literally going to be in space. In college, you have an answer to work towards, and here you are finding the answer. I think I didn't really process what I was going to be doing before coming here.
Eventually, I know I want to go into computer science, but also I want to go into maybe social impact work. I'd love to find some intersection between those. I feel like I grew up really privileged, so I want to use my skills to help other people. But I do love computer science or something where I'd be really at the forefront of research.
If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon or on to Mars, what would you want to do?
Be there. I met Jessica Watkins, who used to intern here, and now she's one of the new NASA astronauts. She spoke to us during my Caltech internship. It was super surreal meeting her. So if I could play any part, I'd want to be up there.
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: jpl.nasa.gov/intern
Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found at: jpl.jobs
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.
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).
In the News
NASA’s newest mission to Mars, the InSight lander, touched down just before noon PST on Nov. 26. So while some people were looking for Cyber Monday deals, scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory were monitoring their screens for something else: signals from the spacecraft that it successfully touched down on the Red Planet.
InSight spent nearly seven months in space, kicked off by the first interplanetary launch from the West Coast of the U.S. Once it arrived at the Red Planet, InSight had to perform its entry, descent and landing, or EDL, to safely touch down on the Martian surface. This was perhaps the most dangerous part of the entire mission because it required that the spacecraft withstand temperatures near 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, quickly put on its brakes by using the atmosphere to slow down, then release a supersonic parachute and finally lower itself to the surface using 12 retrorockets.
But even after that harrowing trip to the surface, InSight will have to overcome one more challenge before it can get to the most important part of the mission, the science. After a thorough survey of its landing area, InSight will need to carefully deploy each of its science instruments to the surface of Mars. It may sound like an easy task, but it’s one that requires precision and patience.
It’s also a great opportunity for educators to engage students in NASA’s exploration of Mars and the importance of planetary science while making real-world connections to lessons in science, coding and engineering. Read on to find out how.
How It Works: Deploying InSight’s Instruments
InSight is equipped with three science investigations with which to study the deep interior of Mars for the first time. The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structures, or SEIS, is a seismometer that will record seismic waves traveling through the interior of Mars.
Mars InSight Lessons
Explore these standards-aligned STEM lessons featuring NASA's InSight mission and Mars.
But to start capturing much of that science data, InSight will have to first carefully move the SEIS and HP3 instruments from its stowage area on the lander deck and place them in precise locations on the ground. Among its many firsts, InSight will be the first spacecraft to use a robotic arm to place instruments on the surface of Mars. Even though each instrument will need to be lowered only a little more than three feet (1 meter) to the ground, it’s a delicate maneuver that the team will rehearse to make sure they get it right.
InSight’s robotic arm is nearly 6 feet (about 2 meters) long. At the end of the arm is a five-fingered grappler that is designed to grab SEIS and HP3 from the deck of the lander and place them on the ground in front of the lander in a manner similar to how a claw game grabs prizes and deposits them in the collection chute. But on Mars, it has to work every time.
Before the instruments can be set down, the area where they will be deployed – commonly referred to as the work space – must be assessed so SEIS and HP3 can be positioned in the best possible spots to meet their science goals. InSight is designed to land with the solar panels at an east-west orientation and the robotic arm facing south. The work space covers about three-square meters to the south of the rover. Because InSight is a three-legged lander and not a six-wheeled rover, science and engineering teams must find the best areas to deploy the instruments within the limited work space at InSight’s landing spot. That is why choosing the best landing site (which for InSight means one that is very flat and has few rocks) is so important.
Just as having two eyes gives us the ability to perceive depth, InSight will use a camera on its robotic arm to take what are known as stereo-pair images. These image pairs, made by taking a photo and then moving the camera slightly to the side for another image, provide 3D elevation information that’s used by the science and engineering teams. With this information, they can build terrain maps that show roughness and tilt, and generate something called a goodness map to help identify the best location to place each instrument. Evaluating the work space is expected to take a few weeks.
Once the team has selected the locations where they plan to deploy the instruments, the robotic arm will use its grapple to first grab SEIS and lower it to the surface. When the team confirms that the instrument is on the ground, the grapple will be released and images will be taken. If the team decides they like where the instrument is placed, it will be leveled, and the seismic sensor will be re-centered so it can be calibrated to collect scientific data. If the location is deemed unsuitable, InSight will use its robotic arm to reposition SEIS.
But wait, there’s more! SEIS is sensitive to changes in air pressure, wind and even local magnetic fields. In fact, it is so sensitive that it can detect ground movement as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom! So that the instrument isn’t affected by the wind and changes in temperature, the robotic arm will have to cover SEIS with the Wind and Thermal Shield.
After SEIS is on the ground and covered by the shield, and the deployment team is satisfied with their placement, the robotic arm will grab the HP3 instrument and place it on the surface. Just as with SEIS, once the team receives confirmation that HP3 is on the ground, the grapple will be released and the stability of the instrument will be confirmed. The final step in deploying the science instruments is to release the HP3 self-hammering mole from within the instrument so that it will be able to drive itself into the ground. The whole process from landing to final deployment is expected to take two to three months.
Why It’s Important
For the science instruments to work – and for the mission to be a success – it’s critical that the instruments are safely deployed. So while sending a mission to another planet is a huge accomplishment and getting pictures of other worlds is inspiring, it’s important to remember that science is the driver behind these missions. As technologies advance, new techniques are discovered and new ideas are formulated. Opportunities arise to explore new worlds and revisit seemingly familiar worlds with new tools.
Using its science instruments, SEIS and HP3, plus the radio-science experiment (RISE) to study how much Mars wobbles as it orbits the Sun, InSight will help scientists look at Mars in a whole new way: from the inside.
SEIS will help scientists understand how tectonically active Mars is today by measuring the power and frequency of marsquakes, and it will also measure how often meteorites impact the surface of Mars.
HP3 and RISE will give scientists the information they need to determine the size of Mars’ core and whether it’s liquid or solid; the thickness and structure of the crust; the structure of the mantle and what it’s made of; and how warm the interior is and how much heat is still flowing through.
Answering these questions is important for understanding Mars, and on a grander scale, it is key to forming a better picture of the formation of our solar system, including Earth.
Use these resources to bring the excitement of NASA’s newest Mars mission and the scientific discovery that comes with it into the classroom.
Robotic Arm Challenge
In this challenge, students will use a model robotic arm to move items from one location to another. They will engage in the engineering design process to design, build and operate the arm.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
*NEW* Planetary Poetry
In this cross-curricular STEM and language arts lesson, students learn about planets, stars and space missions and write STEM-inspired poetry to share their knowledge of or inspiration about these topics.
Time 1-2 hrs
*NEW* Exploring the Colors of Mars
Students use satellite and rover images to learn about the various features and materials that cause color variation on the surface of Mars, then create their own “Marscape.”
Grades 2 and 5
Time 1-2 hrs
*NEW* Planetary (Egg) Wobble and Newton's First Law
Students try to determine the interior makeup of an egg (hard-boiled or raw) based on their understanding of center of mass and Newton’s first law of motion.
Grades 3, 6-8
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Students design and build a shock-absorbing system that will protect two "astronauts" when they land.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Mission to Mars Unit
In this 19-lesson, standards-aligned unit, students learn about Mars, design a mission to explore the planet, build and test model spacecraft and components, and engage in scientific exploration.
*NEW* Heat Flow Programming Challenge
Students use microcontrollers and temperature sensors to measure the flow of heat through a soil sample.
Time 1-2 hrs
In this illustrated math problem, students use the mathematical constant pi to identify the timing and location of a seismic event on Mars, called a "marsquake."
Time Less than 30 mins
Mars in a Minute: How Do You Choose a Landing Site?
So, you want to study Mars with a lander or rover – but where exactly do you send it? Learn how scientists and engineers tackle the question of where to land on Mars in this 60-second video.
Mars in a Minute: How Do You Get to Mars?
What does it take to get a spacecraft to Mars? This 60-second video covers a few key things to remember when planning a trip to the Red Planet.
Mars in a Minute: How Do You Land on Mars?
Getting a spacecraft to Mars is one thing. Getting it safely to the ground is a whole other challenge! This 60-second video from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains three ways to land on the surface of the Red Planet.
Mars in a Minute: What's Inside Mars?
We know what the Red Planet looks like from the outside – but what's going on under the surface of Mars?
Mars in a Minute: Are There Quakes on Mars?
Are there earthquakes on Mars – or rather, "marsquakes"? What could they teach us about the Red Planet?
Mars in a Minute: How Did Mars Get Such Enormous Mountains?
Why are the tallest peaks in the solar system found on one of its smallest worlds? Like any planet, how Mars looks outside is tied to what goes on inside.
Resources and Activities
- Teachable Moment: NASA InSight Lander to Get First Look at ‘Heart’ of Mars
- InSight Lessons
- Mars Lessons
- Mars Activities for Students
Feature Stories and Podcasts
- InSight Podcast: "On a Mission"
- "NASA/JPL Interns Join Mars Landing-Site Dude to Prepare for Touchdown" – Nov. 26, 2018
- "The 'Claw Game' on Mars Plays to Win" – Oct. 16, 2018
- "NASA's InSight Will Study Mars While Standing Still" – Oct. 24, 2018
- "The Mars InSight Landing Site is Just Plain Perfect" – Nov. 5, 2018
Websites and Interactives
Catch up with Clara Ma, Leland Melvin, will.i.am and others featured on NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Landing Event broadcast as they share what's new in their universe.
Click the play button above to watch the full broadcast.