Martian graphic design

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.