Local woman plays part in Mars rover mission

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Today is the scheduled launch date for the new science lab on wheels taking off for Mars. Watching with rapt interest will be Erisa Hines, a 1998 Wheaton High School graduate who is on the Jet Propulsion Lab team in Pasadena, Cal., guiding the mission.

Hines, who completed her dual masters degrees in aerospace engineering and in technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke on her work two years ago at the Monett Kiwanis Club's contemporary issues day at Monett High School. She has worked on the Mars program for the past two years.

"The fact that I get to work on things I think are really exciting and challenging is a big reward," Hines said. "Flying a spacecraft to Mars is such a unique thing to do."

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which has been named "Curiosity," has several teams guiding its progress. Hines is on the team guiding the rover's flight to Mars, which will take eight months.

For the past two years, Hines has been working with engineering hardware and computer models to replicate how the mission will fly in space. Her job has focused on the attitude control system, testing the hardware and software to make sure it performs as planned. She built and tested commands to do things like fire thrusters on the reaction control systems.

Hines will watch the launch with nervous anticipation as the $2.3 billion lab takes flight. Once the launch team's work concludes on Saturday, then her team's work begins.

The spacecraft will have two types of sensors to manipulate. The solar panels will have to be directed at the sun to produce power and antennas have to be directed at the earth for communications. The first sensor used to orient the spacecraft is a sun sensor. A second is a star scanner that plots the position of stars to constantly provide information of the location.

Hines explained the Mars Science Lab will not initially travel directly at the Red Planet. While the rover was built in sterile conditions to avoid potential contamination from Earth reaching Mars, the launch equipment was not. The lab is not traveling directly toward Mars to avoid the launch equipment causing problems.

The spacecraft is also built to spin on its journey, like a top, two revolutions per minute, simplifying the dynamics of keeping the spacecraft pointed in the right direction.

"On Sunday, if we're on schedule, my colleagues and I will command the spacecraft's thrusters for the first time here in Pasadena and slow down the rotation from the initial two and a half spins per minute," Hines said. "It's going to be real different working with a spacecraft in space rather than a simulation. We anticipate some surprises. Hopefully the spacecraft will be healthy and everything will go well."

Roving mars An artist's rendering of the NASA Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

The first big maneuver to steer the spacecraft into a trajectory closer to Mars will come 15 days into the mission. Hines' team will overlap with the EDL (entry, descent and landing) team for the final 45 days before the big landing day. Once the spacecraft hits the atmosphere, the cruise stage directed by Hines' team will burn up in the atmosphere.

"One of the biggest challenges of the mission is to figure out how to land big things," Hines said. "Curiosity is five times heavier than the last probe, the Mars Exploration Rovers known as Spirit and Opportunity. JPL had to come up with a new design to land it."

The landing from the atmosphere, the most critical part of the mission, takes less than 10 minutes. Hines hopes to transition to working with the surface team once the landing is completed to learn a new set of skills.

Curiosity is expected to work on the Mars surface for a long time to come. Hines does not know when her flight skills will be used again. She said the next JPL-led Mars flight is a joint mission with the European Space Agency in 2018. She hopes to be part of that.

"As long as I'm enjoying what I'm doing and it's challenging me, I'm pretty easy to please," Hines said.

Another major reward from the Mars rover project for Hines has been working with specific people.

"I remember when I was a new employee seeing people make a presentation in front of intense review boards. They were top quality engineers and were completely on target. I remember watching one engineer and thinking, 'I want to be like her.' I'm now working with her. I'm also sitting next to a number of others I met early in my career, top people. I've been reflecting that somehow I've managed to be working with these people."

While plans for future space exploration are unclear, Hines is pleased to be in the middle of it.

"I'm excited about what may be coming," she said.

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