Two NJIT graduates built tools that will help the Curiosity Rover, above, search for signs of life on Mars. Photo courtesy of NASA.
Two NJIT alums, Mike Passaretti and Lee Carlson, won’t get much sleep Sunday night.
They’ll be up watching the Curiosity rover land on Mars. The huge robotic rover, which the two alums worked on, is due to land on Mars at 1:31 a.m. eastern time Monday morning. NASA will stream live images of the landing on its website, and Passaretti and Carlson will be anxiously watching.
The one-ton Mars Science Lab is the biggest and best-equipped rover ever launched. And the planned landing is so rife with complexities that there’s a chance it might fail.
“If the rover lands safely I’ll be so happy I won’t be able to sleep,” says Carlson, a systems engineer for Honeybee Robotics, a company that develops technology for spacecraft. “And if there’s a problem with the landing, I’ll be so worried I won’t sleep.”
Carlson (pictured left), who graduated in 2004 with a mechanical engineering degree, helped design and build the robotic mechanism (the Sample Manipulation System) that will help the rover to search for signs of life on Mars, past or present. Once the rover sniffs and scans and digs for samples from the surface of Mars, the sampling mechanism Carlson worked on takes the samples and robotically transfers them to one of three testing stations aboard the rover. The stations will test the samples for signs of life by measuring organic compounds. It’s the first NASA rover ever designed to directly test the habitability of Mars, so Carlson and Passaretti are making a bit of engineering history.
“There is a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that the work I did on the rover could help discover life on Mars,” says Carlson, who credits his NJIT education with launching his engineering career.
Along with a team of Honeybee colleagues, Carlson built the sampling mechanism with help from Passaretti, who manages projects in Honeybee’s Robotics & Automation Technology Group. Passaretti (pictured right) graduated from NJIT in 2005 with a computer engineering degree. Using his knowledge of electrical engineering, he designed and built the electrical harness that powers the sampling mechanism and allows it to communicate with the rover.
“Electronics is the brain of the mechanism, allowing it to signal to the rover when the surface samples are delivered,” says Passaretti. “It’s extremely complicated to make a robotic mechanism that must function on Mars -- 350 million miles away from Earth. "But I’m highly confident it will work. We tested it repeatedly and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who we worked for, has some of the best engineer minds in the world.”
Passaretti also helped build a second mechanism for the rover, a so-called Dust Removal Tool. It’s mounted on the rover’s robotic arm and is designed to clear dust off the surface samples. Dust would interfere with the analysis of the rock samples, so it’s a key component on the rover.
“As an engineer I can’t think of anything more gratifying than to have something I built function on the surface of Mars,” says Passaretti. “I look forward to going to work every morning, and the best part of my job is working with hardware that is making history.”