UC alumna explores Mars at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab

When things go wrong in space, NASA scientists and engineers put their heads together to come up with a solution. But it’s not always as easy as crunching numbers.

Think of the movie “Apollo 13.” The spaceship’s oxygen tank explodes, the ship quickly loses power and heat and the crew must survive in this impromptu environment thousands of miles from home. To fix the problem, NASA didn’t just run a bunch of tests; they made a model of the damaged spacecraft to recreate the three astronauts’ dire situation.

When NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, breaks a drill actuator, wears down its tires or encounters the unexpected, NASA can’t just send someone or something up to fix it. The agency has to make do with what they have. That’s why MAGGIE (Mars Automated Giant Gizmo for Integrated Engineering (yes, that’s its real name) is so important.

Mitchell stands next to MAGGIE

UC aerospace engineering alumna Sophia Mitchell stands in front of Mars rover Curiosity's twin, MAGGIE. Photo/Brandon Pytel/CEAS Marketing

MAGGIE, which is housed in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, is Curiosity’s twin. With some exceptions like weight and power supply, nearly every part of MAGGIE is the same as Curiosity.

And MAGGIE is not only good for fixing things on the fly. The vehicle also helps drive innovation and predict the unexpected. If scientists want to try something new with Curiosity, they try it with MAGGIE first.

Sophia Mitchell, an alumna of University of Cincinnati’s aerospace engineering program, works with MAGGIE as a flight operations engineer at JPL. For Mitchell, working in the NASA Mars Space Exploration Program is a dream come true.

“I’ve always loved space,” says Mitchell, who graduated from UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science in 2015. “Ever since I was 4, I wanted to be an astronaut.”

long shot of NASA's JPL hillside in Pasadena.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory nestled in the mountains of Pasadena, California. Photo/NASA

Mitchell currently works on the Mars drill anomaly team. Drilling is imperative for sampling Mars’ foreign landscape and sending that information back to Earth. In 2016, though, the team discovered an anomaly that made Curiosity’s drill actuator, a key component of the original drilling method, ineffective. Now, Mitchell and other NASA engineers and scientists use MAGGIE to test and retest new drilling techniques for Curiosity to use on Mars.

Since all rocks on Mars are different shapes and textures, having the right drilling technique can be a complicated task. It can be even more complicated if the drill bit walks or the rock shifts, which is why simulating the Mars environment on Earth is a crucial part of testing these drill anomalies.

The geography of California, with its diverse geology of volcanic ash and glacial melt rock, makes an ideal destination for engineers trying to mimic the Mars environment. Engineers can put rocks together in an artificial Mars environment on JPL’s campus called the Mars Yard.

“The Mars Yard is Maggie’s playground,” says Mitchell. “We can see how MAGGIE interacts with the environment and determine what to do should Curiosity encounter similar problems.”

MAGGIE in lab

MAGGIE (Mars Automated Giant Gizmo for Integrated Engineering) is Mars rover Curiosity's twin. If NASA engineers want to try something new with Curiosity, they try it with MAGGIE first. Photo/Brandon Pytel/CEAS Marketing

“It helps to see things in person," she says. "When you’re working with an aging rover like Curiosity, it is imperative that we can fix problems as we go.”

In mid-May, Mitchell and the team tested a new drilling technique that, for the first time in almost two years, allows Curiosity to test Mars’ rock composition.

Mitchell’s love for space is rooted in a passion for robotics and intelligence systems. She prefers the hands-on work of the robotics field and holds a side interest in neuroscience.

“We’re at a point technologically where we can take our understanding of how the brain works and apply that knowledge to robots,” Mitchell says.

The icing on the cake, she says, is sending these robots to space.

a hill in the Mars Yard

The Mars Yard at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is MAGGIE's "playground." The yard is a simulated Mars environment that allows engineers to observe how rovers work on the Red Planet. Photo/Brandon Pytel/CEAS Marketing

The Curiosity mission, and the technology that emerges from it, drives innovation and informs the future, Mitchell says. The Mars program teaches us important lessons about ourselves, like our ability to adapt and the limits of humanity. The dirt and rock data Curiosity collects and sends back to JPL also tells us about our own changing planet.

Mitchell is excited about the future of the Mars expeditions. She refers to the interest in Mars colonization by the private sector – companies like Space-X, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic that invest in extraterrestrial exploration – as the start of a second space race.  

“All these different companies are creating this hunger for space exploration,” says Mitchell. “The whole industry is blossoming, and that’s really great for everyone.”

As Curiosity goes on its sixth year on Mars, Mitchell is excited to see what the Red Planet has in store. No matter what lies ahead, she’s happy to be part of the team exploring this once uncharted territory. 

Featured image at top: An artist's rendering of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity exploring the Red Planet. Graphic/NASA

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