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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

For India hand behind Mars landing, it started with Star Trek

She led the team that developed a technology called 'Attitude Control System Terrain Relative Navigation’, which helped the rover land accurately at the calculated spot.

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi |
Updated: February 25, 2021 7:04:46 am
swati mohan, Mars mission, NASASwati Mohan tweeted this picture on July 29, 2020, hours before the launch of Perseverance. (Image Source: @DrSwatiMohan)

“Touchdown confirmed. Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” announced Dr Swati Mohan, head of guidance, navigation and control operations at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

Mars Perseverance Rover, deployed to explore Martian atmosphere and terrain, had just landed on the red planet after completing a tricky descent to Jezero Crater during what is better known as “seven minutes of terror”. But for Indian-American Mohan, 38, who was responsible for landing the spacecraft after a seven-month, 300-million-mile journey, there was the additional responsibility of commentary.

“I was hyper-aware, so from the last 10 minutes on, there was no script. We had to look at the data that was coming down and translate that… I was very much on edge trying to anticipate the next item that would show up and hoping that was what we wanted to see,” says Mohan in a video interview with The Indian Express.

JPL, she says, had a programme on how to prepare the operations team for various scenarios. “Going through various scenarios in the last few months helped. I was trying to think that it was one of the scenarios that we had already gone through, to not feel nervous,” says Mohan, who had been working on Mars 2020 Mission for the last eight years.

She led the team that developed a technology called ‘Attitude Control System Terrain Relative Navigation’, which helped the rover land accurately at the calculated spot. The camera took images as the Rover descended, and pieces of the image were matched with orbital imagery stored onboard. “Then there is the safe target selection. As Perseverance was flying down, it had a choice between the two wedges and it was able to thread that needle and find the sweet spot between them,” says Mohan.

Mohan grew up in a “traditional, vegetarian family”, with roots in Tumkur in Karnataka, which was extremely supportive when it came to education. Her parents Srinivas and Jyoti Mohan, both engineers in Bengaluru, moved to the US 37 years ago, in search of a better life. Mohan wanted to be a pediatrician, until she came across Star Trek and got interested in space.

“I must have been in grade three and it was this episode which showed these beautiful scenes of how space looked like. I thought to myself that I want to go see that place. It was curiosity that kicked off the hobby,” says Mohan, who plays the piano and violin.

She soon started reading books about the Hubble Telescope, solar system and astrophysics. The engineering aspect struck her when she took her first physics class in high school. This is where the prospect of a career in astrophysics and aeronautics began.

Mohan always factored NASA in her life. Her first internship was at NASA’s Goddard Space Center in high school, followed by another at Kennedy Flight Centre and even at JPL. A graduate from Cornell University in Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, she finished her Masters and Phd from MIT. She worked as a junior engineer in the Cassini mission, which landed the Huygens probe into Saturn’s moon.

Mohan joined the Mars Mission in 2013, three years after she completed her PhD and began learning from those involved in the Curiosity Mission (2012) before being given a pivotal role in the landing of Perseverance. The challenge, she says, emerged after meetings with those on the Curiosity Mission.

“We had to figure a preliminary design and then tweak back and forth… there was the architecture — should it be streamlined or not. Then there was the critical design phase after which you build the thing… As much as you can imagine every context when you design, it’s only when you test that all the pieces come out. And that teaches you humility because there is always something that you didn’t think about or understand,” says Mohan.

While Mohan was overwhelmed by the attention and appreciation she got after the mission’s success, she was amused by the social media reaction to her “bindi”. “Wearing a bindi for me is a part of my identity and a common occurrence. I have been wearing it since I was a child. My colleagues at JPL are comfortable and I have never felt the need to limit or downplay any aspect of myself. For me, it was just another day at work, which is why for me it’s funny for me that it’s being taken as such a statement,” says Mohan.

She does, however, relate to comments about being bullied and ostracised for differences in appearance. “I would get teased as a child for wearing it and kids would come up with unique names to call me. The bindi is one example but there are examples across all other ethnicities,” she says.

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