Alumni have their hands in space

Megan Richardson and Liz Duffy in front of the Vehicle System Test Bed, a copy of the Curiosity rover cur­rently on Mars.

As a kid, Liz Duffy E ’11 wanted to be an astro­naut. Megan Richardson E ’10, on the other hand, was more inter­ested in robots. Today they are both working at NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory helping the Curiosity rover scour Mars for signs of life.

I chose North­eastern for the co-​​op pro­gram,” recalls Duffy. “I saw it as a way to get to NASA.” She was right. Both Richardson and Duffy started out their careers with the gov­ern­ment agency as co-​​op stu­dents in the Plan­e­tary Sam­pling Acqui­si­tion and Han­dling group, which develops and opti­mizes instru­ments for col­lecting sam­ples from other bodies in space.

While attending a Society of Women Engi­neers con­fer­ence in her third year at North­eastern, Richardson met the super­visor of the propul­sion group at JPL who encour­aged her to send her resume to the JPL intern pro­gram. She did and ended up spending her second and third co-​​ops working on var­ious Plan­e­tary Sam­pling projects and paving the way for other North­eastern students–like Duffy–to also take on co-​​op oppor­tu­ni­ties at the Lab. The alums now spend their days opti­mizing the var­ious col­lec­tion mech­a­nisms installed on Curiosity’s arm.

Mars’ var­ious rocks and soils may or may not con­tain water or other indi­ca­tions of the pos­si­bility of life. The Plan­e­tary Sam­pling team built and now con­trols the mech­a­nisms for obtaining these sam­ples. For instance, a drill can be used to col­lect sam­ples of hard rock, while a scoop can col­lect softer, loose mate­rial sam­ples. The sam­ples are then deliv­ered to var­ious ana­lyt­ical instru­ments installed on the rover.

Any time [the ana­lyt­ical team] sees a rock that they don’t know what it is but they’re really inter­ested in it, since you don’t want to jeop­ar­dize your hard­ware on Mars, we’ll drill it here on earth to check it,” explained Richardson. First, the rover will get a rough and dirty pic­ture of the mate­rial with a gen­eral analysis of its chem­ical com­po­nents. If some­thing sim­ilar doesn’t exist here, they will use a man-​​made rock designed to mimic the material.

Then, by alter­nating the set­tings and pro­ce­dural order of the drilling and scooping mech­a­nisms, they deter­mine the best approach for col­lecting a sample for fur­ther analysis.

During the build phase of the project, the team had to rely on pre­dic­tions of what sorts of mate­rials they would encounter. Now that the rover has landed, Duffy said, they will have more data to inform their tests. “We’ll keep testing and trying dif­ferent ways of col­lecting sam­ples from the soil up there and the rock,” she said. Based on the hard­ness of the mate­rial, dif­ferent drilling and scooping pro­to­cols may make more or less sense.

Richardson and Duffy are two of about 5,000 JPL employees. Each of them finds working in the diverse aca­d­emic envi­ron­ment ful­filling. Richardson said she eats lunch with mem­bers of the orbital mechanics group, which is respon­sible for actu­ally get­ting things like Curiosity to Mars and satel­lites into space. “Just learning how they do it and how they get the hard­ware where it needs to go rounds out the story,” she said.

Duffy would agree. “I like coming to work and I like being part of some­thing bigger,” she said. It was par­tic­u­larly rewarding to be there for the Curiosity landing: “Being here when MSL landed on Mars was amazing. It was one of the best nights ever.”