Alumni have their hands in space

Megan Richardson and Liz Duffy in front of the Vehicle System Test Bed, a copy of the Curiosity rover currently on Mars.

As a kid, Liz Duffy E ’11 wanted to be an astronaut. Megan Richardson E ’10, on the other hand, was more interested in robots. Today they are both working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory helping the Curiosity rover scour Mars for signs of life.

“I chose Northeastern for the co-op program,” recalls Duffy. “I saw it as a way to get to NASA.” She was right. Both Richardson and Duffy started out their careers with the government agency as co-op students in the Planetary Sampling Acquisition and Handling group, which develops and optimizes instruments for collecting samples from other bodies in space.

While attending a Society of Women Engineers conference in her third year at Northeastern, Richardson met the supervisor of the propulsion group at JPL who encouraged her to send her resume to the JPL intern program. She did and ended up spending her second and third co-ops working on various Planetary Sampling projects and paving the way for other Northeastern students–like Duffy–to also take on co-op opportunities at the Lab. The alums now spend their days optimizing the various collection mechanisms installed on Curiosity’s arm.

Mars’ various rocks and soils may or may not contain water or other indications of the possibility of life. The Planetary Sampling team built and now controls the mechanisms for obtaining these samples. For instance, a drill can be used to collect samples of hard rock, while a scoop can collect softer, loose material samples. The samples are then delivered to various analytical instruments installed on the rover.

“Any time [the analytical team] sees a rock that they don’t know what it is but they’re really interested in it, since you don’t want to jeopardize your hardware on Mars, we’ll drill it here on earth to check it,” explained Richardson. First, the rover will get a rough and dirty picture of the material with a general analysis of its chemical components. If something similar doesn’t exist here, they will use a man-made rock designed to mimic the material.

Then, by alternating the settings and procedural order of the drilling and scooping mechanisms, they determine the best approach for collecting a sample for further analysis.

During the build phase of the project, the team had to rely on predictions of what sorts of materials they would encounter. Now that the rover has landed, Duffy said, they will have more data to inform their tests. “We’ll keep testing and trying different ways of collecting samples from the soil up there and the rock,” she said. Based on the hardness of the material, different drilling and scooping protocols may make more or less sense.

Richardson and Duffy are two of about 5,000 JPL employees. Each of them finds working in the diverse academic environment fulfilling. Richardson said she eats lunch with members of the orbital mechanics group, which is responsible for actually getting things like Curiosity to Mars and satellites into space. “Just learning how they do it and how they get the hardware where it needs to go rounds out the story,” she said.

Duffy would agree. “I like coming to work and I like being part of something bigger,” she said. It was particularly rewarding to be there for the Curiosity landing: “Being here when MSL landed on Mars was amazing. It was one of the best nights ever.”