JPL Scientist Has One of the Most Important Cleaning Jobs in this Part of the Galaxy

Published : Wednesday, April 4, 2018 | 4:08 PM

A team of scientists and technicians at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena works to make sure that anything that flies out of Earth’s atmosphere and goes to another world in space is free of bacteria or microbes or anything that may contaminate that world.

As Good Magazine puts it, this team has “one of the most important cleaning jobs in the world,” and is led by Dr. Moogega “Moo” Cooper.

A 32-year-old with a master’s and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Drexel University in Philadelphia, Cooper is a Planetary Protection Engineer at JPL, and is the planetary protection lead for the Mars 2020 mission. Since 2011, she has been with the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group at JPL.  Her job is to ensure that when the 2020 rover touches down on the Red Planet, it won’t contaminate it or alter the ecosystem, if life exists there, in any way. “We don’t want to make Mars sick,” Cooper tells Good Magazine.

While humans have immune systems, Mars does not, so to ensure its preservation, Mars rovers traveling from Earth must be a pinnacle of purity, Cooper says. Cleaning up the rover is a painstaking process – approximately 10 percent of the car-sized spacecraft must be swabbed and tested. The process strategically divides the 10 percent so that team members screen each component of the spacecraft for bacteria – from the parachute to the vents, and everything in between.

If the rover were to contaminate Mars, that could potentially be destructive and could ruin researchers’ chances to study the planet.

“We want to understand what may be native to Mars if at all – if there’s life there at all,” Cooper explains, adding that the Curiosity rover did find signs that water had existed on the planet.

For now, the 2020 rover is just its working title, Cooper tells Good. Typically, for these NASA missions, the rovers are named usually through a public competition, just like how names like Curiosity, Sojourner, and Spirit came about.

In her job, Cooper makes sure every new component being produced for the spacecraft – and the packaging they come in – is inspected and tested. She has flown to Spain and the Netherlands to test specific scientific instruments that NASA procures from international collaborators.

Cooper tells the magazine that she hasn’t always been science-minded, and was even mediocre in math and science and needed to take remedial courses in the subjects and received Bs, Cs, and even Ds. She says it wasn’t until middle school when she checked out “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan that she was hit by a revelation. She knew then that she wanted to become an astrophysicist.

This newfound ambition motivated her to work harder in math and science courses, and encouraged her to put more effort into understanding the underlying principles of these studies. Soon, being exemplary kind of became Cooper’s thing. She graduated high school at age 16, breezed through her bachelor’s in physics at Hampton University, and by 24 had completed both her master’s and doctorate degree.

“I actually wanted to graduate even sooner from high school, and I didn’t; I actually failed,” Cooper says in the Good interview. “It really taught me that it didn’t have to be ‘win, win, win, success’ all the time.”

Cooper now works long hours at JPL, where other young scientists, including Bobak Ferdowsi, widely known as “Mohawk Guy,” also work. Cooper says it’s an “odd utopian exception” to the stereotype of NASA workers: the “Apollo generation” folks that include a large population of “gray beards.”

Cooper makes almost daily visits to the gym to work out, and at other times she’d be recruiting people – especially those that underrepresented in her field like women and people of color. She has also spoken at local schools, at the improvisation comedy theater Upright Citizens Brigade, and at a recent space expo in Long Beach.

At JPL, Cooper is focused on the rover’s launch, which she calls her “rover baby.” She is aware that humans are a cesspool of bacteria, which in most situations is good, and if humans are sent to Mars, even if they’re contained to a localized region, winds and other environmental factors could spread contaminants all over the planet.

“My job is going to be completely different if not obsolete if we send humans,” Cooper says.



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