On Thursday, February 18, 2021, at 3:55 p.m. EST, we landed a 1,025 kg rover the size of a small car on Mars. After a seven-month journey through space, a jetpack hovering a few meters over the surface of Mars lowered the rover on cables and gently dropped it as planned. A few minutes later — it takes that long for a radio signal to make it back to Earth — we had received the first photos from Mars.
The rover carries 23 cameras, two microphones, a weather station, spectrometer, radar, laser, and a host of advanced equipment to search for signs of past microbial life, collect mineral samples, and test whether oxygen can be extracted from the CO2-rich atmosphere, which will be essential to support life in future expeditions. The rover is powered by a plutonium radioactive generator and controlled by a fast computer. It communicates with Earth using a UHF antenna that transmits signals through satellites orbiting Mars. It even carries an autonomous drone that will attempt a first-ever flight in Mars’ super thin atmosphere.
My choice of pronouns in my opening sentence is intentional. “We” includes, of course, NASA — but also scientific teams from the U.S., Norway, and Spain. More broadly, it includes generations of researchers and engineers — many in places like Georgia Tech — who’ve contributed to advancing the science and technology behind space travel and remote scientific exploration: aerospace, electrical, computer and mechanical engineers; roboticists, computer scientists, material scientists, astrophysicists, astrobiologists. Project managers and organizational experts to build and coordinate high-performing diverse teams from different cultures, backgrounds, and geographies. Communicators who educate the public and key decision-makers on the value of such an enterprise.
Two thoughts come to mind when I reflect on what we just accomplished. One is a sense of hope and optimism about the power of science and technology to solve incredibly complex problems and come up with incredibly sophisticated solutions. The other one is the importance of collaboration — across organizations, across nations, across disciplines — to solve complex problems.
Our vision for the next decade is to be an example of inclusive innovation committed to addressing the biggest local, national, and global challenges of our time and developing exceptional leaders from all backgrounds ready to produce novel ideas and create solutions with real human impact. This week was a great example of why all that matters.
See more about Georgia Tech’s connection to the Mars 2020 Perseverance Landing in this Facebook Live event that featured Elizabeth Cordoba (AE 2005) and Vishnu Sridhar (AE 2015) who work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Faculty, researchers, students, and alumni from the College of Engineering and the College of Sciences were also featured in various panels and events in week-of celebration activities.