MELBOURNE: It took almost two decades for Bob Balaram’s idea to take off. In the 1990s, Balaram, with a Stanford professor, had proposed a “helicopter for Mars”. Seeing it through, however, was not possible.
The technology simply did not exist. A fortuitous event seven years ago, the director of NASA Jet propulsion laboratory (JPL) attending a drone conference, led to a question he had the answer to – could drones fly on Mars? “Someone remembered that I tried this in the 1990s and recommended me.
My team and I had eight weeks to prepare a proposal that led to an initial study, which has now grown into this bold effort – the first helicopter to Mars, Ingenuity, ”Balaram told TOI a week after Perseverance, the last rover from NASA on Mars, landed successfully.
While working on his side for the Mars 2020 mission, he often met Swati Mohan, responsible for guidance, navigation and controls. “We practice Kannada when we meet in the hallway,” he says. In the Perseverance team alone, there are at least 12 scientists of Indian origin at work, eight of whom are women.
There’s Vandana Verma, who could take the rover for a spin on Mars next week. There is the deputy chief of the engineering operations team for the Perseverance rover, Nagin Cox. The former US Air Force officer was born in Bangalore, raised in Malaysia and the United States, and has been a space operations engineer at NASA / JPL for over 20 years.
The head of the avionics field – which means overseeing the electronic communication, navigation, and display systems on board the spacecraft – was Yogita Shah, an electrical engineer from Aurangabad who became a flight systems engineer with Nasa JPL. Development Software as manager of the activity planning and sequencing sub-system, Usha Guduri, a former student of BITS Pilani.
With over 18 years in software development, Guduri had previously worked for Cassini (the fourth probe to Saturn) and Dawn (the first mission to orbit a dwarf planet). Vishnu Sridhar led the effort to test SuperCam, which will analyze the composition of Martian rocks. Among those testing part of the ground data systems was Kavita Kaur from Chandigarh.
Soumyo Dutta, an aerospace engineer, zoomed in on the path taken by the spacecraft during entry, descent and landing. The assembly of the engine control during the descent of the spacecraft was the responsibility of Priyanka Srivastava, a systems engineer who studied at Lucknow and Punjab before working on three NASA flight missions. For the engine control assembly software, another systems engineer, Shivali Reddy, was on board.
Finally, Neel Patel, also a systems engineer, helps the automated system to collect and manage space material. (With contributions from Srinivas Laxman in Mumbai)