Illinois alumni key to Nasa’s Curiosity mission to Mars

After graduating, University alumni spread out across the state, country and globe. But now, some have even gone as far as Mars.

Before NASA’s Curiosity rover took a single picture of the red planet, Lynn McGrew, flight dynamics engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and graduate of the 2000 undergraduate aerospace engineering program, was offering a helping hand in the mission.

McGrew helped to develop and test an algorithm that helped Curiosity “to very precisely target its landing site on Mars,” she said. The algorithm helped Curiosity’s landing to be more exact than previous Mars landings, and enabled NASA to land the rover at the base of a mountain inside a crater.

Curiosity, which is part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, benefitted from the work of another aerospace engineering alumnus, Evgeniy Sklyanskiy.

Sklyanskiy, a graduate of the 2001 undergraduate and 2004 graduate aerospace engineering and applied mathematics programs, was a mission designer for the Surface Guidance Navigation and Control team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

He also helped Curiosity make its journey from Earth to Mars by testing some of the flight hardware. His contributions included testing the algorithms and software implementation, which allowed the high-gain antennae to communicate with NASA and the gyrocompass to compute Curiosity’s location and status. He also helped develop two pairs of navigation cameras, which can locate the rover’s position based on the Sun’s position in the sky.

The information gathered by Sklyanskiy and his group is fed to another University alumnus, Scott Maxwell, a 1994 graduate of the computer science graduate program. Maxwell is one of many rover drivers for Curiosity, but his job is much more complex than a few simple flicks of a joystick.

Because there is anywhere from a four-minute to 20-minute interaction delay between the time a command is sent from Earth to when it is received on Mars, Maxwell said it is impractical to control Curiosity as it traverses the Martian terrain. Instead, Maxwell and the other rover drivers send Curiosity an entire day’s worth of movements in the morning, and the rover is essentially on its own for the rest of the Martian day until it stops to sleep for the night.

Maxwell said that in creating an entire day’s movements, he must also account for any potential problems and have pre-programmed responses for all of them. After Curiosity has spent the day moving around Mars taking pictures and collecting samples, it sends back the day’s data and goes to sleep in order to stay warm enough to make it through the cold night.

Maxwell said NASA also occasionally receives additional data transmissions in the middle of the night and again in the morning.

These three University alumni all work on different aspects of Curiosity and at various locations across the U.S., but they all spent time developing their skills at the University.

All three admitted the difficulty of their educations, but they all said it was beneficial for them as they moved onto their careers.

In her senior design project, McGrew designed a communications system that could track multiple orbiters and rovers around Mars that “really pretty closely emulated” the work she now does on the Curiosity project.

Sklyanskiy said his “very intense” engineering curriculum taught him time management, group coordination and communication skills, as well as the stamina and basic technical knowledge that is needed in his career.

Maxwell said his education in supercomputing and parallel programming was “a particularly useful skill” because it helped him to be ahead of the curve. Twenty years ago, multicore processors were not as commonplace as they are today, where they are found everywhere from the fastest computers to many cellphones.

“(The University) was a great opportunity for me to really improve my education,” he said. “There were a lot of great opportunities.”

Though the three University alumni have come and gone, they all said they still expect the University, in addition to all universities, to continue inspiring students to take an interest in space exploration.

“(Curiosity) really helped to reignite some interest in NASA and space,” McGrew said.

She added that she hopes it will give both students and all Americans “a sense of the future” for space exploration.

Thomas can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Lynn McGrew created the landing algorithm. McGrew only helped to develop and test this algorithm. The Daily Illini regrets this error.