Science & Technology

Colombian NASA flight director wants Hispanics to dream big

By Ivonne Malaver

Miami, Mar 2 (efe-epa).- Colombian NASA flight director Diana Trujillo, a key contributor to the historic Feb. 18 landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars, said she has learned to dream as big as anyone and wants to instill that same attitude in aspiring scientists throughout the Hispanic world.

The first Latina immigrant to be admitted to the NASA Academy said in an interview with Efe that she is proud to know she has done her part in the quest to determine whether or not we are alone in the universe.

Having arrived nearly empty-handed in the United States at the age of 17 with no knowledge of English, she initially made a living as a house cleaner but went on to study at the University of Florida and the University of Maryland, pursued a career in the aerospace industry and eventually rose to become leader of the engineering team that developed Perseverance’s robotic arm.

With the rover’s dramatic landing last month on the Red Planet, the Colombian immigrant successfully fulfilled two longstanding dreams: to participate in a historic mission to search for life beyond Earth and also to bring NASA’s feats to a wider audience as host of the first-ever Spanish-language transmission of a planetary landing.

Since the start of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, which over the next two years will search for traces of microbial life on Mars that may have existed billions of years ago, the aerospace engineer has led several key processes.

She worked on the assembly of Perseverance’s robotic arm and the development of its related software at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, California, where tests were conducted to ensure their proper mechanical and electrical functioning as a whole prior to mounting on the rocket.

Trujillo later headed up the group that examined whether the software they were using would be capable of commanding the robot. Now that Perseverance is on Martian soil, she is the “flight director” charged with leading the group that analyzes what the rover has done during the day once it has received its commands.

“To see how it’s executing them, analyzing if there’s any problem,” she said.

Mars 2020 was launched from Earth in July 2020 and made a successful landing 12 days ago after a harrowing, seven-minute descent in which the speed of the spacecraft carrying Perseverance was reduced from nearly 20,000 kilometers per hour to zero.

The aerospace engineer said she is still in disbelief at the high-resolution images obtained and the beauty of the “copper and blue” tones visible as Perseverance, the fifth NASA space vehicle to land on Mars, was making its descent.

“I had to pinch myself a couple of times because the terrain looks spectacular,” she said, adding that she is proud that for the first time video was taken of the spacecraft as it was approaching Mars’ surface.

Trujillo noted that never before had there been images of the entire sequence and all the elements involved, including the parachute that helped land the Perseverance, the rover making its descent and the jet propulsion system.

She recalled that only a couple of post-landing photos were taken of the descent of Curiosity, a rover that has been on Mars since its arrival in 2012, because that vehicle was only equipped with a single camera.

By contrast, Perseverance had two cameras: one facing upward and another looking downward as it traveled through Mars’ thin atmosphere prior to landing on that planet’s Jezero crater.

It will conduct a search there for around 30 samples that NASA intends to bring back to Earth by 2031 as part of a potential future Mars sample-return mission.

The aerospace engineer said scientists will use photos taken from an orbiter orbiting the Red Planet to program the route of the rover, which will use the 2.1-meter (seven-foot) robotic arm to collect the samples.

That arm is equipped with two instruments that permit rocks to be analyzed before they are drilled to acquire samples of Mars’ surface and store them in dozens of glass tubes.

Trujillo said she was surprised that NASA was able to send a rover to another planet in the middle of the pandemic. “It makes me think there are many other things we can do.”

The Colombian also said of her hosting of the Spanish-language broadcast of the landing that part of her aim is to inspire the Spanish-speaking population and encourage other Hispanics to participate in space exploration.

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