It may look animated, but the face of NASA's next 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 Measurement Mast) for the Mars 2020 rover. Carlson jokes that his job is a bit like doing and following instructions for assembling furniture from IKEA – that is, if the furniture goes to another planet without the option of returning for replacement. With its five cameras that will do everything from aiming the rover to recording ambient sounds to blasting objects with lasers so that it can study their chemical composition, the mast will play a key role in the mission's mission to find evidence of the ancient microbial life. Returning JPL intern Evan Kramer met with Carlson to learn more about his role in preparing the rover for its planned Mars debut in February 2021
What are you doing in JPL?
I am a mechanical engineer working on a mast for remote monitoring for Mars 2020, [NASA’s next Mars rover]. The remote monitoring mast is the door and head of the rover. Scientifically, this is our vision system for seeing far and doing remote sensing. So instead of using rover training to study something up close, the mast uses spectroscopy and lasers to see things that are far away and read their chemical composition.
There are many tools on the mast. There are five cameras on the head itself. Two of them are for navigation, [NavCams]. For example, they will point the rover at obstacles. After that, there are two Mastcam-Zs. On the Curiosity Rover they are called Mastcams. On Mars 2020, they are called Mastcam-Zs because they have enlarged lenses. These cameras will produce incredible panoramic images that we can learn a lot from. Then we have SuperCam, which is the big eyeball. SuperCam launches a laser that burns or repels a distant target. During this ablation, the camera takes a very fast photo. The color of the flash that the laser makes on the target will be unique to the chemical composition of the target. SuperCam also has a microphone on it, which is new to this mission. This will allow us to hear the wind and the movements of gravel and rocks. And then down the neck of the mast for remote monitoring, we have two wind sensors 90 degrees apart. One of them is an expanding boom that can reach far beyond 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, they make up a set of tools known as MEDA.
What is your role in dealing with all these components?
Much of my time has been devoted to the role of a knowledgeable engineer that I share with one another. This is essentially the engineer responsible for delivering the spacecraft's hardware. This includes everything from making sure you have all the nuts and bolts for installation – counting them physically and weighing them and recording all the parts and inspection reports – as well as writing down the procedures for building everything. So it's like the document you get with your furniture from IKEA that shows you how to assemble the pieces. Our team is quite small, so usually after we have developed these procedures, we go into the cleanroom lab, pick up the parts and collect them all together. On an ordinary day, I will usually do a little of all this. And then I provide oversight to make sure it is collected the way it should.
You first came to JPL as an intern in the summer of 2015. What was that experience like?
When I was an intern, I was working on a project that I had no idea until I became an intern and now I can't stop thinking about it. It's called Starshade and is a baseball-sized sunflower-shaped device. It is designed to fly far into the sky and suppress light from a distant star so that the space telescope can get a direct image of the planets orbiting the star. Using the same kind of spectroscopy that is on Mars 2020 SuperCam, scientists can determine which elements are in the atmosphere of these planets, called exoplanets. If we could do this, it would be revolutionary, because it could tell us whether a distant planet is habitable or perhaps even already inhabited.
In which part of Starshade did you work?
Starshade was made up of two systems and I worked on both. There is a detachable farm, which is a large hoop that forms the circumference of the giant sunflower form. This must fit into a rocket in order to ascend into space. So we had to figure out how to put something that could expand to the size of a baseball diamond in about four feet. I worked on the construction and design of this farm structure. The other part made the shape of sunflower so that it suppressed the starlight, and that is in the origami realm. So, I also worked with origami specialists to figure out how to relate this folding object to the farm structure.
What brought you to JPL for your internship?
The first time I heard about JPL was when the Rover Curiosity Mission team visited my campus at the University of Colorado Boulder. They talked about the process of entering, disembarking and landing about the mission and this was the first time I had even really heard of the process.
Seeing the video [“7 Minutes of Terror”] for the first time and hearing how impossible it looks? to try landing an SUV on another planet, I thought, "This is the coolest thing I've ever heard. I have to be part of that in some way. " I didn't even know or care about how useful I could be. I just realized that this is where I want to be.
What moments or memories of your internship stand out the most?
We were a great intern team. I think there were 13 of us on the Starshade project. There were those days when we were going to build large-scale Starshade models. These are huge carbon fiber structures that all need to be bonded together with the epoxy that you spray from the syringes and that is very convenient. So all 13 of us were in one kind of assembly line, doing that. By the end of the internship, we were competing with each other to see who could do it better, faster, cleaner and all that. And it was just so much fun for me. I learned a lot about how to work effectively in a team. This is certainly one of the things that makes JPL a special place. No one at JPL would have achieved what they did without being in an incredible team. This is at the heart of our success.
How did your internship shape your career path and lead to what you do now?
When I first started my internship, I decided that what I wanted to do was mostly CAD, [computer-aided design] work sitting in front of computer 3D modeling and drawing. The internship has taught me the joys of dealing with things that can go into space. There are so many things to think about, from starting environments to micrometeoroids to ridiculous temperatures and pressures. It changes the way you think about a problem to be on the wording side by putting hardware together. I didn't even know it was a career option for me until I started doing it. My internship at JPL really opened my eyes to this. I didn't even know what role I was in right now.
Does your internship also give you the opportunity to meet people who could potentially become your managers?
Yes. I think one thing that makes JPL really great is that if an intern has a really great idea, it doesn't matter that they are a student. They will be heard with the same openness as if the Chief Engineer had the same idea. Someone described JPL for me as a meritocracy and I think more than any other place I've been to, this is true. I saw it myself. Even as a full-time engineer, there are times when I think, "Who am I to propose it? I don't have as much experience as all these other people. "But I say it because the culture here supports it. And then it affects the way the mission is designed. This changes something important.
Have you had any interns? If so, what is your mentoring style? What do you hope to take from the experience?
Yes, I had my interns. I tried to imitate my mentors when I was an intern. Looking back on it, they are part of what made me really successful – allowing me the freedom to realize that I'm smart enough to make decisions. Coming from school, I think interns have this idea that they have to be told what to do because it's like a school task. But for some of the tasks we do here, A, B, and C getting a job is not everything. Sometimes it is up to the trainee to determine the way forward. So I try to give my internship enough freedom to make these kinds of decisions. I think the validation you get when you see an idea come to fruition will make you a much better engineer than if you had just been told to do a task and completed it.
What is your advice for those looking for an internship or a job at JPL one day?
One thing that was detrimental to me in trying to work here was to see myself as a student, hang out with adults, or see myself under my colleagues. So for an intern in a meeting with other engineers, do not be afraid to speak up, feel confident in the education you have received.
Finally, I hear you write poetry and draw in your spare time. Did your experiences at JPL affect your creative side or vice versa?
Being here opened my eyes to many things. Since I started working here, I have opened more to allow other people's ideas and perspectives to influence my own. JPL also encourages creativity. Caltech [which manages JPL for NASA] has an art exhibition every year. I put a few pieces in there. I think it's great to mix engineering and art. Every year there is a talent show at JPL. I sing in the talent show with a little cock. So JPL encourages and confirms that you don't have to be just an engineer. This is a good place to say that we can do this and that.
View the JPL summer and year-round internship programs and apply for: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/ Intern JPL's educational service. Expanding the scope of NASA's STEM engagement service, JPL Education aims to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers, supporting educators and bringing excitement from NASA's missions and science to learners of all ages.
TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Trainees, College, Career, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Starshade