It only takes minutes into a conversation with Farah Alibay about her job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to realize there’s nowhere else she’d rather be. An engineer working on the systems that NASA’s next Mars rover will use to maneuver around a world millions of miles away, Alibay got her start at JPL as an intern. In the six years since being hired at the Laboratory, she’s worked on several projects destined for Mars and even had a couple of her own interns. Returning intern Evan Kramer caught up with Alibay to learn more about her current role with the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, how her internships helped pave her path to JPL and how she hopes interns see the same “beauty” in the work that she does.
What do you do at JPL?
I’m a systems engineer. I have two jobs on the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission right now. One is the systems engineer for the rover’s attitude positioning and pointing. It’s my job to make sure that once it’s on the surface of Mars, the rover knows where it’s pointed, and as it’s moving, it can update its position and inform other systems of where it is. So we use things like a gyroscope and imagery to figure out where the rover is pointed and where it’s gone as it’s traveling.
My other job is helping out with testing the mast [sometimes called the “head”] on the rover. I help make sure that all of the commands and movements are well understood and well tested so that once the rover gets to Mars, we know that the procedures to deploy the mast and operate all of the instruments are going to work properly.
This is probably a tough question to answer, but what is an average day like for you?
Right now, I spend a lot of time testing – either developing procedures, executing procedures in the test bed or reviewing data from the procedures to make sure we’re testing all of our capabilities. We start off from requirements of what we think we should be able to do, and then we write our procedures to test out those requirements. We test them out with software, and then we come to the test bed to execute them on hardware. Things usually go wrong, so we’ll repeat the procedures a few times. Eventually, once we think we’ve had a successful run, we have a review.
Most of my testing is on the mobility side. However, it hasn’t really started in earnest yet since we’re waiting for the rover’s “Earth twin” [the engineering model] to be built. Once that happens, later this summer, I will be spending a good chunk of my time in the Mars Yard [a simulated Mars environment at JPL], driving the rover around and actually using real data to figure out whether the software is behaving properly.
What’s the ultimate goal of your work at JPL?
All the work that I do right now is in support of the Perseverance rover mission. On the mobility team, we work on essential functions that are going to be used as the rover drives around on Mars.
One of the really neat things about Perseverance is that it can do autonomous driving. So the rover is able to drive up to 200 meters on its own, without us providing any directional information about the terrain. Working on this new ability has been the bulk of testing we’re doing on the mobility team. But this new capability should speed up a lot of the driving that we do on Mars. Once we get smart in planning rover movements, we’ll be able to plan a day’s worth of activity and then tell the rover, “Just keep going until you’re done.”
You came to JPL as an intern. What was that experience like and how did it shape what you’re doing now?
I spent two summers as an intern at JPL during my Ph.D. The first one was in 2012, which was the summer that the Curiosity Mars rover landed. That was a pretty incredible experience. As someone who had only spent one summer at NASA before, seeing the excitement around landing a spacecraft on Mars, well, I think it’s hard not to fall in love with JPL when you see that happen. During that summer, I worked on the early days of the A-Team [JPL’s mission-concept study team], where I was helping out with some of the mission studies that were going on.
My second summer, I worked in the Mars Program Office, looking at a mission concept to return samples from Mars. I was helping define requirements and look at some of the trade studies. We were specifically looking at designs for orbiters that could bring back samples from Mars. A lot of that fed into my graduate research. It’s pretty cool to be able to say that I applied my research and research tools to real problems to help JPL’s Mars sample return studies.
What brought you to JPL for your internship? Was working at JPL always a dream for you?
Yeah, working at NASA was always a dream, but going into my Ph.D., I became more and more interested in robotics and planetary exploration. I have a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, but I also have a minor in planetary science. There are very few places on Earth that really put those two together besides JPL, and it’s the only place that has successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars. So, given my passions and my interests, JPL emerged at the top of my list very, very quickly. Once I spent time here, I realized that I fit in. My work goals and my aspirations fit into what people were already doing here.
What moments or memories from your internships stand out the most?
The Curiosity landing was definitely one of the highlights of my first internship.
Another one of the highlights is that JPL takes the work that interns do really seriously. I was initially surprised by that, and I think that’s true of every intern I’ve met. Interns do real work that contributes to missions or research. I remember, for example, presenting some of my work to my mentor, who was super-excited about some of the results I was getting. For me, that was quite humbling, because I saw my research actually helping a real mission. I think I’ll always remember that.
How do you think your internship shaped your career path and led to what you’re doing now?
My internships definitely opened a lot of doors for me. In particular, during my second internship, I also participated in the Planetary Science Summer School at JPL. Throughout the summer, we met with experts in planetary science to develop a mission concept, and then we came together as a team to design the spacecraft in one week! It was an intense week but also an extremely satisfying one. The highlight was being able to present our work to some of the leading engineers and scientists at JPL. We got grilled, and they found a whole lot of holes in our design, but I learned so much from it. How often do you get to have your work reviewed by experts in the field?
Through these experiences, I made a lot of connections and found mentors who I could reach out to. Since I knew JPL is where I wanted to be, I took it upon myself to knock on every single door and make my case as to why JPL should hire me. I actually never interviewed, because by then, they decided that I had done my own interviews!
My internships and the summer school also gave me an idea of what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. So I was a step ahead of other applicants. I always tell interns who come to JPL that if they’re not particularly liking their work in the first few weeks, they should take the opportunity to go out and explore what else JPL has to offer. I believe that there’s a place for everyone here.
Have you had your own interns before?
I had interns my first two summers working at JPL. Two of my interns are now also full-time employees, and I always remind them that they were my interns when I see them! I also have an intern this summer who I’m extremely excited to work with, as she’ll be helping us prepare some of the tools we’ll need for operating the Perseverance rover on Mars.
What is your mentorship style with interns?
My goal for interns is mostly for them to learn something new and discover JPL, so I usually let my interns drive in terms of what they want to achieve. Normally, I sit down with them at the start of summer and define a task, because we want them to be doing relevant work. But I encouraged them to take time off from what they’re doing and explore JPL, attend events that we have organized for interns and decide whether this is a place for them or not.
It’s kind of a dual mentorship. I mentor them in terms of doing their work, but also mentor them in terms of helping them evolve as students and as early career engineers.
What do you hope they take away from their experience?
I hope they take advantage of this unique place and that they fall in love with it the way I did. Mostly, though, I’m hoping they discover whether this is a place for them or not. Whatever it is, I want them to be able to find their passion.
What would be your advice for those looking to intern or work at JPL one day?
I think the way into JPL, or whatever career that you’re going to end up in, is to be 100% into what you’re doing. If you’re in school, studying aerospace engineering or mechanical engineering, do hands-on projects. The way I found opportunities was through the Planetary Science Summer School and the Caltech Space Challenge, which were workshops. I also did something called RASC-AL, which is a different workshop from the National Institute of Aerospace. Do all of those extracurricular things that apply your skills and develop them.
If you have the opportunity to attend talks, or if your advisor gives you extra work that requires you to reach out to potential mentors, take the time to do it.
My other piece of advice is to knock on doors and talk to people who do something in your field that you’re interested in. Don’t be shy, and don’t wait for opportunities to come to you. Especially if you’re already at JPL, or if you have mentors that are. Leverage that network.
Last question: If you could play any role in NASA’s mission to send humans back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars, what would it be?
I chose to come to JPL because I like working on robotic missions. However, a lot of these robotic missions are precursors to crewed lunar and Mars missions. So I see our role here as building up our understanding of Mars and the Moon [to pave the way for future human missions].
I’ve worked on different Mars missions, and every one has found unexpected results. We’re learning new things about the environment, the soil and the atmosphere with every mission. So I already feel like my work is contributing to that. And especially with the Perseverance rover mission, one of its main intentions is to pave the way for eventually sending humans to Mars.
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: jpl.nasa.gov/intern
Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found at: jpl.jobs
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.
How sparrows from B.C. spread a new song to the rest of North America – CTV News
A team of biologists spent 14 years tracking how a group of birds from B.C. became song influencers, eventually changing how the white-throated sparrow warbles from the Rocky Mountains all the way to the border of Quebec.
“It hasn’t been reported on this kind of magnitude or scale before, and that’s why it was interesting project to do, to look at how quickly the song is actually spreading,” Ken Otter, a biology professor at the University of Northern B.C., told CTV News.
The original sparrow song included an introductory phrase, and then three notes at the end, something like, “Oh my sweet Canada Canada Canada,” Otter explained.
The new song has just two notes at the end, resulting in something more like, “Oh my sweet Cana Cana Cana.” (Watch the video to see a full interview with Otter, and to hear the two different types of birdsong.)
Otter and other researchers initially noticed the change in birdsong in 2005 in central B.C., and assumed it was contained to just one small population of white-throated sparrow.
“But in about 2010 to 2014, we realized the song seemed to be spreading eastward, so we’ve been enlisting people to help us track this and found that the song has spread right into Ontario and is bordering right around Quebec,” Otter explained.
Birdsong does change over time, Otter said, but typically a new song type doesn’t completely replace an older song. It’s also very unusual for it to happen so quickly.
The researchers tracked the migration patterns of the birds, and the song’s spread, by attaching geolocators to certain birds from Prince George, B.C. and tracking their migration to other parts of Canada and the United States.
“They have to learn their songs from adult tutors, and so what you would expect is that most of the birds would learn the song that’s common to their environment or their neighbourhood,” Otter said.
“And so when the new song type emerges, you’d expect it to peter out, but what’s happening is these birds seem to be adopting the new song type.”
No one knows for sure why the birds changed their tune, but in a paper Otter and the research team published, they hypothesize that it could help the males attract female mates.
“Within white-throated sparrows, females prefer songs that include the terminal phrase over those that simply have the introductory notes, suggesting that females are attentive to the terminal portion of the song,” according to the researchers.
“But if female response to song variants wanes slightly over time… males may integrate novelty to maintain female interest.”
With files from CTV News.
Rocket Lab launch fails during rocket's second stage burn, causing a loss of vehicle and payloads – Yahoo Finance UK
The mission appeared to be progressing as intended, but the launch vehicle appeared to experience unexpected stress during the ‘Max Q’ phase of launch, or the period during which the Electron rocket experiences the most significant atmospheric pressure prior to entering space.
Launch video cut off around six minutes after liftoff during the live stream, and rocket was subsequently shown to be falling from its current altitude before the web stream was cut short. Rocket Lab then revealed via Twitter that the Electron vehicle was lost during the second stage burn, and committed to sharing more information when it becomes available.
This is an unexpected development for Rocket Lab, which has flown 11 uneventful consecutive Electron missions since the beginning of its program.
<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck posted an apology to Twitter, noting that all satellites were lost, and that he’s "incredibly sorry" to all customer who suffered loss of payload today. That includes Canon, which was flying a new Earth imaging satellite with demonstration imaging tech on board, as well as Planet, which had five satellites for its newest and most advanced Earth imaging constellation on the vehicle.” data-reactid=”23″>Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck posted an apology to Twitter, noting that all satellites were lost, and that he’s “incredibly sorry” to all customer who suffered loss of payload today. That includes Canon, which was flying a new Earth imaging satellite with demonstration imaging tech on board, as well as Planet, which had five satellites for its newest and most advanced Earth imaging constellation on the vehicle.
We’ll update with more info about the cause and next steps from Rocket Lab when available.
Rocket Lab Electron launch fails – SpaceNews
Updated 6:15 p.m. Eastern.
WASHINGTON — A Rocket Lab Electron rocket failed to reach orbit during a July 4 launch after a problem during the rocket’s second-stage burn.
The Electron rocket lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 at Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, at 5:19 p.m. Eastern. The launch was originally scheduled for July 3 but pushed back two days because of poor weather in the forecast, only for the company to move up the launch to July 4 based on a reassessment of the weather.
The initial phases of the launch appeared to go as planned, although the vehicle’s passage through “max-q,” or maximum dynamic pressure, appeared to be rougher than what was seen in previous launches. Onboard video taken shortly before first-stage separation showed material appearing to peel from the rocket, although it was not clear if it simply a decal applied to the rocket or something more substantial.
The onboard video from the rocket froze about five minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff, or three minutes into the seconds stage burn. At six and a half minutes after liftoff, a launch controller on the company’s webcast of the launch said, “Initiating mishap response plan.”
Telemetry from the rocket, displayed on the webcast, showed the rocket’s altitude falling from about 194 kilometers to less than 165 kilometers for about 90 seconds before that information was removed from the screen. The company ended the webcast 11 minutes after liftoff, two minutes after the rocket’s second stage should have shut down and the kick stage, carrying its payload of seven satellites, deployed.
“An issue was experienced today during Rocket Lab’s launch that caused the loss of the vehicle. We are deeply sorry to the customers on board Electron,” the company tweeted about 25 minutes after liftoff. “The issue occurred late in the flight during the 2nd stage burn. More information will be provided as it becomes available.”
“We lost the flight late into the mission. I am incredibly sorry that we failed to deliver our customers satellites today,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, tweeted after the failure. “Rest assured we will find the issue, correct it and be back on the pad soon.”
The launch was the 13th for the Electron rocket. The vehicle had 11 consecutive successful launches after the rocket’s inaugural launch in May 2017 was terminated because of a telemetry issue involving range safety systems, and not a problem with the rocket itself.
The primary payload for the launch was CE-SAT-1B, a 67-kilogram imaging satellite built by Canon Electronics, whose launch was arranged by Spaceflight Inc. The satellite, capable of taking images with a resolution of 90 centimeters, was intended to demonstrate the spacecraft’s technologies as the company prepared mass production of similar satellites.
“This launch is very critical for Canon Electronics as we are launching a satellite where we have remarkably increased the ratio of in-house development of components compared to the previous launch,” said Nobutada Sako, group executive of the Satellite Systems Lab at Canon Electronics said in a pre-launch release. Canon launched a similar satellite, CE-SAT-1, in 2017.
The rocket carried five SuperDove imaging cubesats developed by Planet. These satellites are upgraded versions of its original Dove line of cubesats, with additional spectral bands to support geospatial applications in fields like architecture.
The seventh satellite on the Electron was Faraday-1, a six-unit cubesat developed by British startup In-Space Missions. The satellite is the first in a series by the company designed to carry hosted payloads. Faraday-1 included payloads for several customers such Airbus Defence and Space, which flew a payload called Prometheus 1 to test a reprogrammable software-defined radio.
This mission, dubbed “Pics or It Didn’t Happen” by Rocket Lab, featured the shortest turnaround time between Electron missions to date. The previous Electron launch, which carried three National Reconnaissance Office satellites and smallsats for American and Australian universities, launched June 13.
After a halt in launch activity caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Rocket Lab had planned to ramp up its launch activity in the second half of the year. The next mission after this was to take place with an even shorter turnaround, Beck said in a June 18 interview. The company was also looking ahead to a first Electron launch from Launch Complex 2 in Virginia that, prior to this failure, was expected to take place before the end of the summer.
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