U Alumni Thomas Stucky and His Connection to the Mars Rover Perseverance


Photo Courtesy of Thomas Stucky. (Photographed by Arno Rogg.)

By Malinka Kaluarachchi, News Writer


On Feb. 18, 2021, Thomas Stucky and thousands of people nervously watched NASA’s rover Perseverance touchdown on Mars. As it landed, NASA’s mission control room celebrated the successful landing. 

The rover traveled 300 million miles in six months to reach its destination. Perseverance’s mission is to look for ancient microbial life and to study the climate and geology of the planet.

Perseverance can also prepare NASA for a chance for human explorers to be on the planet someday. 

Stucky is a University of Utah alumni and a KBRWyle software engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. He wrote the robotic control software for robotic drill arms similar to the one on the Perseverance rover. NASA’s quest is to improve the rover’s functionality and control on its own, as scientists on Earth are too far away to assist the rover when it’s on Mars.

The project Stucky was working on was known as the Atacama Rover and Astrobiology Drilling Studies. The project focused on hardware, software and operations tests in the Atacama desert in Chile, which has a similar climate to Mars.

“By testing robotic drills on-board rovers in the Mars-like environment of the Atacama desert, we have been able to develop autonomous drilling technology capable of reaching even deeper than Perseverance or any other Mars probe has dug to date,” Stucky said.

Gail Zasowski is an assistant professor at the U who teaches physics and astronomy. She has been closely following Perseverance’s journey, and she said the rover is similar to a wheeled robot, about the size of a large car. 

“It’s packed with cameras, instruments and tools for not only taking photos, videos and measurements but actually collecting samples,” Zasowski said.  

Stucky said that during the early exploration days, scientists were skeptical of using cameras because cameras were not seen as a scientific tool. However, he said, it’s been one of the most useful instruments for space exploration. 

“Not only did photographs turn out to be important tools for scientific discovery by providing important context for the non-photographic data that are downlinked with them, but they also brought us cultural discovery,” Stucky said.

He explained this aspect of the Mars Rover is one of the many vital operations currently happening. 

Zasowski said that on top of all the photographic data Perseverance collects, it also contains tools for drilling into the rocks and collecting samples.

“It’ll fill little tubes with rock cores and leave them at a predetermined cache site, and there are various ideas being proposed for how future missions might recover the samples and return them to Earth,” Zasowski said. 

Once the samples are returned to Earth, more insight can be gained about life on Mars. Zasowski said the rover carries a little helicopter named “Ingenuity.” She said once Perseverance reaches a suitable location, the helicopter will be released to attempt test flights.   

“If successful, this would be the first powered flight we’ve achieved on another planet,” Zasowski said. 

During the descent of Perseverance, Zasowski said that the astronomy department was elated. She said under normal circumstances, the department would have gotten together to watch the live feed and celebrate the descent. 

“Of course, we couldn’t do that, but I know a lot of us watched the feed wherever we could,” Zasowski said. 

Despite the rover’s safety, the landing was quite a terrifying descent down onto the planet. Stucky said that once the rover’s descent begins, it’s too late for the mission control back at NASA to make any adjustments to the flight plan.     

“Beyond this point, the rover acts as its own pilot, even selecting its own landing site within the desired landing ellipse. The scariest part of the descent is the ‘seven minutes of terror,’” Stucky said. “When the rover first enters Mars’ atmosphere at a very high speed, the ionizing Martian atmosphere around it makes it impossible to receive signals from the rover during this initial descent phase.” 

Tabitha Buehler is an associate professor at the U who teaches physics and astronomy. Buehler said during the seven-minute time frame, there’s a lot of uncertainty because of the time delay in space.

“By the time [NASA engineers] receive a signal telling them that the rover has reached the top of the atmosphere, the rover itself has been on the surface of Mars for about seven minutes already — either intact or crashed,” Buehler said.  

If something happens to go wrong, even light-speed communication is too slow to do anything about it back on Earth. She said it’s because of the 20-minute time delay from Mars.

“With any engineering task, there are risks, and losing a valuable payload, such as Perseverance, to a rocket malfunction on its way to Mars is just the start of them,” Stucky said.

NASA chose the landing site for Perseverance — which was full of cliffs, sand dunes and boulders. The rover’s landing site is called Jezero Crater, which was once a lake.

“The actual site was a river delta that fed into the lake. This spot was chosen because places that were once wet offer a good chance to find evidence of past life if it existed,” Zasowski said. 

A current experiment being tested by NASA is MOXIE, which stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. This particular device absorbs carbon dioxide and turns it into oxygen. The purpose of this project is to someday have human explorers visit Mars with the device. 

Also, onboard Perseverance is the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer which characterizes the weather. It helps to understand the dangers if humans were to ever visit and explore Mars into the future.

“This is a very exciting next step for the field of astrobiology,” Buehler said.


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