Northeastern University

Martian graphic design

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Photo provided by Madeleine San Martin.

Art, Media and Design student Madeleine San Martin practically grew up inside NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which celebrated its most recent victory with the successful landing of the Mini Cooper-sized Mars rover, Curiosity. Madeleine’s father, Miguel San Martin, was instrumental in designing the software that allowed the rover to decelerate from a speed of 13,000 miles per hour to landing in just seven minutes. This summer her parents suggested she get an internship at the lab to keep herself busy. “I was like, I don’t know if you guys realize that I’m an art person, there’s not much I can do at the Jet Propulsion Lab.” Of course, she was wrong. She has spent the last three months interning as a graphic designer, visually translating an upcoming test mission of the Low Density Super Sonic Decelerator.

Of all the the attempted Mars landings, around half have succeeded, said Madeleine. In the last successful landing, the Exploration rover was engulfed in airbags and bounced on the surface of the planet until it stopped. This time, since Curiosity was so large, that method simply wouldn’t work. They instead used the sky crane maneuver, which Miguel San Martin came up with several years ago. Instead of airbags, the rover was delicately lowered from the spacecraft via a series of cables.

Curiosity is the largest vehicle ever to wander the surface of the red planet. Its mission is to find signs of life and if it does, we’ll eventually be sending even larger equipment to explore further. “They’re trying to figure out ways to get bigger machinery, and possibly one day humans, onto Mars,” said Madeleine. “The problem is at this point is slowing down. It’s an issue because of the difference in atmosphere. They’re trying test new ways that will allow them to put different, heavier things on Mars besides rovers.”

In 2014 the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator mission will test two deceleration mechanisms. The first is called a “siad,” or supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator. This is a “big doughnut looking inflation that occurs around the space craft,” said Madeleine. It will bring speeds from Mach 3.5 or greater, according to the website, to Mach 2. The second is a new type of supersonic parachute that has never been used before

“Since Mars’ atmosphere is so much thinner than ours, it’s hard to find a place to do the testing here,” said Madeleine. “So what they’re going to do is launch it out over the ocean of Hawaii, up into the stratosphere, where the atmosphere is thinner. That’s where the test will be conducted, replicating entry into the martian atmosphere,” she explained.

This test will involve dozens of triggers and events, enough to make up the “long–very long–excel sheet” that Madeleine received upon joining JPL. “From launch to splash down, there are tons of triggers that go off. And even within those, there are ten things happening to make one thing happen.” The spreadsheet includes every event that occurs down to the millisecond.

“I’ve had to take that and make it into understandable graphics that accurately display the timeline of events that occur,” said Madeleine. “I started with a big general overview of the mission and I’ve had to delve deeper and deeper into these separate parts.”

When she first arrived, she was inundated with requests from engineers, who typically do their own graphics. “It’s actually very time consuming for them, because it’s not just a power point. It has to be something that everyone who sees it can understand.” She was initially concerned that she wouldn’t be able to visually translate the information she received, but she has found this not to be the case. “I sit with the information for a long time and then start sketching things out,” she said. Her skepticism of her parents’ original suggestion has given way to the realization that there are actually quite a few opportunities for graphic designers at the JPL.


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