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.

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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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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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JPL Christopher Esquer-Rosas holds an origami version of the Starshade engineering model behind him.

Origami is going to space and Chris Esquer-Rosas is helping it get there. A computer engineering student at San Bernardino Valley College in Southern California, Esquer-Rosas used to do origami only as a hobby, but now he’s using it to build a giant sunflower-shaped structure that his team hopes will provide a new window into worlds beyond our solar system. Esquer-Rosas explains how he’s putting his origami skills to use and what got him folding in the first place.

What are you working on at JPL?

I’m working on Starshade, specifically the Petal Launch and Unfurler System.

What is starshade and what is it supposed to do?

Starshade is a proposal to fly a giant, sunflower-shaped shade in front of a space telescope, so we can directly image exoplanets, which are planets outside of our solar system. One of the big issues that we have is that we know exoplanets are there, but we can’t get the data we want about them because the stars that the planets are surrounding are too bright and they're basically blocking our view. So what Starshade is going to do is suppress or diffract sunlight while a telescope with all the science instruments directly images those exoplanets. It will probably be a little image, like one-by-one pixel, but with that one image, we can actually get a ton of data about these exoplanets – so carbon dioxide emissions, possibly water vapor, methane, gases and things like that.

Watch on YouTube

There's a lot of origami involved in building Starshade. How does it come into play?

When it unfurls in space, Starshade is supposed to be 36 meters (about 118 feet) in diameter, which is about the size of a baseball diamond, and it's supposed to be only 2.5 meters (about 8 feet) in diameter when it’s stowed for launch. We’re using origami concepts to make that possible. Origami involves a lot of math. A lot of people don't realize that. But what actually goes into it is lots of geometric shapes and angles that you have to account for. One of the first things that I started doing on Starshade was helping with the stow pattern. So starting out with one sheet, how do you fold it so you can stow it at a much smaller size? Do you want it to be taller or shorter? How many folds do you want? And then, how small do you want it to be? We developed a bunch of algorithms, so now all you have to do is input the specs, push enter, and a new pattern is created instead of having to refold things over and over and over again.

What are some of the challenges in getting that whole operation to work?

There are lots of challenges. The first challenge is making sure none of the petals gets nicked. [Starshade is shaped like a sunflower.] The petal edges are razor sharp and they are what allow the light to be diffracted so we can image the exoplanet. The curvature of the petals has to be within half-a-human-hair-width accuracy, so we have to make sure nothing happens to them. If any of them gets nicked, then now we have this giant bright spot in our images. We also have to make sure all the petals end up in the correct position once Starshade unfurls. And we have to make sure no light comes through any part of the Starshade itself.

Which of those challenges are you working on solving?

What I’m working on is making sure none of the petals touches each other. That's one of the big challenges. We have to find a way to slowly unwrap the petals so nothing interferes or touches any of the petal edges or the petal itself.

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.

Tell me about your background in origami and how it brought you to JPL.

I've been doing origami since the fourth grade, when my teacher read us “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.” At the end of the book, it teaches you how to fold your own paper crane. After I folded it, I just had this instinct to want to unfold it to see what it looked like. It has this unique pattern. So I started measuring it, and I figured out that different angles give you different lengths for the wings and the legs. So I was like, ok, what if you rotate the entire crease pattern 45 degrees? Now you get these more beautiful wings and you get a different shape. Then, I started folding other people's designs and learning how to design my own origami. I loved origami so much that I started learning the math behind it. A friend of mine, Robert Salazar, had started at JPL, and he was also an origami guy. We've been friends since seventh grade. He started on Starshade and then, eventually, he was leaving and he told them about me. They interviewed me a few times and then they were like, OK, come in and help us out.

Before that, did you have any idea there was an application for origami in space exploration?

I knew there were applications for other things like airbags and deployable mirrors, but I didn't know that there were space applications. That's what blew my mind. I was like, origami is going to space now? This is amazing.

Are you studying something origami-related in school?

I'm actually studying computer engineering, so it's completely different.

Has interning with Starshade made you want to change your career path?

It's like this close, because I've wanted to be a computer engineer since fourth grade as well. But since working here, a lot of the mechanical stuff has been a big learning experience. I didn't know mechanical engineering existed, but now that I do, it's amazing.

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

I feel like I'm contributing because, right now, interns are on the front lines of testing out the hardware and making sure everything works. We're dealing with issues, trying to fix them, and coming up with ideas. I feel like we're actually contributing a lot to how this thing could eventually deploy in space.


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, College, Higher Education, Student Programs, Starshade, Origami, Exoplanets, Technology

  • Kim Orr
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