Published : Monday, November 26, 2018 | 6:33 AM
Matt Golombek’s job is one that could only exist at a place that regularly lands spacecraft on Mars. And for more than 20 years, the self-proclaimed “landing-site dude” and his rotating cast of interns at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have helped select seven of the agency’s landing sites on the Red Planet.
Golombek got his start in the Mars landing-site business as the project scientist for the first rover mission to the Red Planet in 1997. Since that time, he has enlisted the help of geology students to make the maps that tell engineers, scientists, stakeholders and now even the rovers and landers themselves where – and where not – to land. Among the list of no-gos can be rock fields, craters, cliffs, “inescapable hazards” and anything else that might impede an otherwise healthy landing or drive on Mars.
For Golombek’s interns, the goal of helping safely land a spacecraft on Mars is as awe-inspiring as it comes, but the awe can sometimes be forgotten in the day-to-day work of counting rocks and merging multitudes of maps, especially when a landing is scheduled for well after their internships are over. But with the landing site for NASA’s next Mars rover just announced and the InSight spacecraft landing on the planet in a matter of hours, interns Lauren Berger, Rachel Hausmann and Heather Lethcoe are well aware of the significance of their work – the most important of which lies just ahead.
Selecting a landing site on Mars requires a careful balancing act between engineering capabilities and science goals. It’s a partnership that for Golombek, a geologist, has evolved over the years.
Golombek reflects on the time before spacecraft like the now-critical Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provided high-resolution, global views of the Martian terrain. In those early days, without close-up images of the surface, the science was largely guesswork, using similar terrain on Earth to get a sense for what the team might be up against. Spacecraft would successfully touch down, but engineers would look aghast at images sent back of vast rock fields punctuated by sharp boulders that could easily destroy a lander speeding to the surface from space. NASA’s 1997 Pathfinder spacecraft, encased in airbags for landing, bounced as high as a 10-story building before rolling to a stop at its jagged outpost.
Now, Golombek and his interns take a decidedly more technological approach, feeding images of candidate landing sites into a machine-learning program designed to measure the size of rocks based on the shadows they cast and carefully combining a series of images, maps and other data using Geographical Information Systems, or GIS, software (a required skill for Golombek’s interns).
Still, there are some things that must be done by hand – or eye, as the case may be.
“Lauren [Berger] is now an expert on inescapable hazards,” says Golombek of one of his current trio of interns. “She can look at those ripples, and she knows immediately whether it’s inescapable, probably inescapable, probably escapable or not a problem.”
“Or, as we like to say, death, part death and no death,” jokes Berger.
“We work with them to train them so their eye can see it. And so far, that’s the best way to [identify such hazards]. We don’t have any automated way to do that,” says Golombek.
“I like to call Lauren the Jedi master of ripples-pattern mapping,” says fellow intern Heather Lethcoe, who is the team’s mapping expert for the Mars 2020 rover mission. “I helped her a little bit with that, and now I’m seeing ripples closing my eyes at night.”
Until recently, Lethcoe and Berger were busily preparing maps for October’s landing site workshop, during which scientists debated the merits of the final four touchdown locations for the Mars 2020 mission. If Golombek’s team had a preferred candidate, they wouldn’t say. Their task was to identify the risks and determine what’s safe, not what’s most scientifically worthy. Thanks to new technology that for the first time will allow the rover to divert to the safest part of its landing ellipse using a map created by Golombek’s team, the debate about where to land was solely focused on science. So unlike landing site workshops for past Mars missions, Golombek’s team stayed on the sidelines and let the scientists “have at it.” (In the end, as with all other missions, the final site recommendation was made by the mission with NASA’s approval.)
Now, with an official landing site announced, it might seem that Golombek’s team is out of work. But really, the work is just beginning. “We’ll be heavily involved in making the final hazard map for the [Mars 2020] landing site, which will then get handed to the engineers to code up so that the rover will make the right decisions,” says Golombek.
Meanwhile, the team will be busy with the outcome of another Mars landing: InSight, a spacecraft designed to study the inner workings of Mars and investigate how rocky planets, including Earth, came to be.
Golombek’s third intern, Rachel Hausmann, has become a master at piecing together the hundreds of images, rock maps, slope maps and other data that will be used to land InSight. Because InSight is a stationary spacecraft, one of the most important parts of the mission after it lands will be surveying the area and determining how and where to place each of the science instruments on the surface.
“If you think about it, it’s like landing-site selection, just a little smaller scale,” says Golombek. “You don’t want [the instruments] sitting on a slope. You don’t want them sitting on a rock.”
For that, Golombek is getting the help of not just Hausmann but all three interns. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have students who happen to be in the right place at the right time when a spacecraft lands and needs their expertise.”
Practice Makes Perfect
To prepare for this rare opportunity, the students have been embedded with different working groups, rehearsing the steps that will be required to place each of InSight’s instruments safely on Mars several weeks after landing.
“The groups have rehearsals for different anomalies, or issues, that could go wrong,” says Hausmann. “They do this to problem solve even down to, ‘Are we in the right room? Do we have enough space?’ because when you’re working on a space mission, you can’t have an issue with facilities.”
The students took part in the first of these so-called Operational Readiness Tests in early October and say it was an eye-opening experience.
“It was really helpful just to get to know the team and really understand what’s going to happen,” says Berger. “Now we know how to make it happen, and everyone’s a lot more ready. Also, it was so much fun.”
“That’s what I was going to say!” says Lethcoe. “That was just the rehearsal, and at the end of it, I felt so amped and pumped up. I can’t even imagine when we’re actually doing it how good that’s going to feel.”
Lethcoe says there was also the matter of balancing homework and midterms with full-time preparations for a Mars landing. That was its own sort of readiness test for December when the real work of deploying the instruments will coincide with finals.
Perhaps most surprising, say the students, was their realization that their expertise is valued by a team that’s well-versed in Mars landings.
“Imposter syndrome is real,” says Hausmann. But the team’s internships are serving as the perfect antidote.
“I had this fear that I don’t know if I’m going to be more in the way and more pestering or if I’m actually going to be helpful,” says Lethcoe, a student at Cal State University, Northridge, who was first exposed to the mapping software used by the team during her time in the U.S. Army. “It turns out that the [InSight geology] team lead gave me really nice reviews.”
Berger interjects to add supportive emphasis to Lethcoe’s statement – a common occurrence among the three women who have shared the same small office for more than a year now. “He said he absolutely needed her and she could not go away.”
Lethcoe laughs. “[My co-mentor] texted me to let me know, ‘You earned this,” and I tried not to take screenshots and send them to all my friends and my mom. They definitely make it known how much we’re appreciated.”
Adds Berger, “I think JPL really teaches you to have confidence in what you know.”
More than the mapping skills and research experience they’ve picked up during their time at JPL, it’s that confidence that they’re most eager to take back to school with them and impart to other young women interested in STEM careers.
Berger gave a talk about imposter syndrome at her school, Occidental College in Los Angeles, earlier this month. And Hausmann, a student at Oregon State University, says her efforts to encourage and coach young women are the most important contribution she’s making as a JPL intern.
“My mom didn’t go to college. My dad left us when we were in high school. And so I didn’t really focus on my career,” says Hausmann. “I just want to help young women get in [to research and internships] early because I got in kind of late. I think that’s so important, just as important as the work we’re doing.”
The Next Frontier
When your internship or your job is to help land spacecraft and deploy instruments on Mars, the question, “Where do we go from here?” is literal and figurative. While the next year or so will be perhaps one of the busiest Golombek’s team has ever known, his future as the landing-site dude is uncertain.
“If what you do is select landing sites for a living, it’s kind of an odd thing because you can only work at one place,” says Golombek. “You need to have a spacecraft that needs a landing site selected for it. And for the past 20 years, there have been spacecraft that we’ve been landing on Mars. So I’m kind of out of business now because Mars 2020 is the last for the time being – there are no new [NASA Mars] landing sites that are being conceived of.”
At the mention of possible lander missions to other worlds, Golombek shrugs and his near-constant grin sinks into a thin horizon. “Don’t know,” he says. “I’m kind of a Martian, and I’ll probably stick with Mars.”
Maybe it’s a torch best carried by his intern alums, many of whom have gone from their internships to careers at JPL or other NASA centers. While Lethcoe, Berger and Hausmann are still enmeshed in their education – Lethcoe is in her junior year, Berger is taking a gap year before applying to graduate programs, and Hausmann is applying to Ph.D. programs in January – their experiences are sure to have a profound impact on their future. In many ways, they already have.
Could they be the landing-site dudes of the future? Maybe someday.
But for now, they’re focused on the challenges of the immediate future, helping NASA take the next steps in its exploration of Mars. And for that, “They’re super well trained,” Golombek says, “and just perfect for the job.”
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern