INTERVIEW/The Taiwanese engineer 'driving' NASA's Perseverance Mars rover

02/20/2021 10:16 PM
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Image courtesy of Yen Jeng
Image courtesy of Yen Jeng

Los Angeles, Feb. 19 (CNA) When NASA's Perseverance rover successfully touched down on the surface of Mars on Thursday after a seven-month, 480 million-kilometer journey, a Taiwan-born engineer and remote pilot was preparing to guide it through its first movements on the red planet.

Yen Jeng (嚴正), a 61-year-old graduate of National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu and a 20-year veteran in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is now taking part in his fourth Mars exploration mission with the agency's Robot Interfaces and Visualization team, this time as its leader.

In an interview with CNA, Yen described his expectations for the next few months, which he characterized as "living on Earth in Mars time."

He explained that because nighttime temperatures on Mars can drop to 80 degrees below zero Celsius, the rover must spend those hours heating itself, while conducting its research during the day.

During those hours, Yen and his team will work at preparing the computer code that will guide the rover's movements the next day.

However, because a day on Mars is around 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth, the time difference between the two planets is continually changing.

For example, Yen said, "today my shift started at 2 p.m. Next week it will start at 10 p.m."

As for his job description, Yen explained that piloting the 1,000 kilogram rover is -- despite expectations to the contrary -- nothing like driving a remote control car.

Because there is no GPS on Mars, Yen and his team had to design custom navigation software for the rover, utilizing technologies including 3D visualization and virtual and augmented reality.

Those efforts, multiplied across the various other teams that are contributing to the mission, mean that every foot the rover covers on Mars is the product of "decades of work by countless people," he said.

One of the main missions of the Perseverance is to search for signs of ancient life on the planet.

When asked if NASA has guidelines on what to do if the rover encounters alien life, Yen said it did not, but joked that his first instinct would be to take a picture.

The space agency does, however, have strict procedures for preventing any living organisms from Earth from hitching a ride to Mars, due to their potential to corrupt scientific research and result in the false discovery of life on the planet.

Asked how long it would be before a human mission could reach Mars, Yen said he believes that a child born this year could see it during his or her lifetime.

In fact, Yen said, the technology for a human mission to Mars already exists. It is just a matter of investing the money necessary to achieve it, which would be "hundreds of times" more than the US$2.7 billion price tag for the Perseverance mission, he added.

While that goal remains distant, Yen marveled at the progress that has been made during his own time at NASA, which has included the discovery that water once existed on Mars and is now pursuing evidence of life on the planet.

Yen advised young Taiwanese with an interest in astronautics not to be afraid to pursue their dreams, citing his own mid-career decision to leave a professorship for an opportunity at NASA.

When it comes down to such decisions, "you will regret it if you don't give it a shot," he said.

(By Lin Hung-han and Matthew Mazzetta)

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