MELBOURNE: It took nearly two decades for Bob Balaram’s idea to take off. Sometime in the 1990s, Balaram, along with a
professor, had proposed a “helicopter for Mars”. Seeing it through, however, was not possible.
The technology just did not exist. A chance occurrence seven years ago, the director of Nasa’s
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
(JPL) attending a talk on drones, led to a question he had the answer to — could drones fly on Mars? “Someone remembered I had attempted this in the 1990s and recommended me.
My team and I had eight weeks to prepare a proposal which led to some initial study money, which has now grown into this bold effort — the first helicopter on Mars, Ingenuity,” Balaram told TOI a week after Perseverance, Nasa’s latest Mars rover, landed successfully.
While working on his part for the Mars 2020 mission, he would often run into Swati Mohan, the guidance, navigation and controls lead. “We practise Kannada when we meet in the hallway,” he said. On the Perseverance team alone, there are at least 12 Indian-origin scientists at work, eight of whom are women.
There is Vandana Verma, who could take the rover out for a spin on Mars next week. There’s deputy team chief of engineering operations for Perseverance rover, Nagin Cox. The former US Air Force officer was born in Bengaluru, grew up in Malaysia and the US, and has been a spacecraft operations engineer at Nasa/JPL for over 20 years.
The avionics domain lead — which means overseeing the electronic systems for communication, navigation, display on board the spacecraft — was Yogita Shah, an electrical engineer from Aurangabad who went on to become a
flight systems engineer
with Nasa JPL. Developing
as the activity planning and sequencing subsystem lead was Usha Guduri, a BITS Pilani alumnus.
With over 18 years in software development, Guduri had earlier worked for Cassini (the fourth probe to Saturn) and Dawn (the first mission to orbit a dwarf planet). Leading the effort to test SuperCam, that will analyse composition of Martian rocks, was Vishnu Sridhar. Among those testing part of the ground data systems was Kavita Kaur from Chandigarh.
Zooming in on the trajectory the spacecraft took during entry, descent and landing was Soumyo Dutta, an aerospace engineer. The motor control assembly during descent of the spacecraft was the responsibility of Priyanka Srivastava, a systems engineer who studied in Lucknow and
before working on three Nasa flight missions. For the software for motor control assembly, another systems engineer, Shivali Reddy, was on board.
Finally, helping the automated system to collect and manage space material is Neel Patel, also a systems engineer. (With inputs from Srinivas Laxman in Mumbai)