Two Penn State engineering alumni among NASA Mars Curiosity team

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When the NASA Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover makes its final descent towards the Red Planet’s surface early Monday (Aug. 6) morning, two Penn State engineering alumni will be among the engineers and scientists holding their breath.

Brian Schratz, an electrical engineering alumnus, and Ray Baker, an aerospace engineering alumnus, have played crucial roles leading up to Curiosity's planned touch down.

Schratz serves as the entry descent and landing communications (EDLCOMM) lead for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

"As EDLCOMM, I'm responsible for ensuring that the MSL hardware and software is designed correctly to transmit the critical entry descent and landing data in real-time, as well as the coordination of the three Mars UHF orbiters, and NASA and ESA [European Space Agency] tracking stations on Earth," he said. "It's been a marathon of a job, at a constant sprinter's pace."

Although everyone on the MSL team is nervous for Monday, Schratz said the most difficult portion of his job took place long before the probe was launched on Nov. 26, 2011.

"The stressful part was getting it to work in the first place," he said. "We're 99.9 percent of the way there. Now we're just coasting — literally."

But for Ray Baker, a senior propulsion systems engineer and 11-year JPL veteran, entry is precisely when his stress begins. Baker is on the team that developed and delivered the MSL lander's engines.

He explained that engine design is derived from the original NASA Viking missions of the 1970s. "Part of our job was to resurrect the design from 40 years ago."

Baker said the MSL's landing engines are able to generate 700 pounds of thrust. In contrast, the previous Mars lander, Phoenix, had engines that could generate 60 pounds of thrust. The MSL is equipped with eight engines.

"We spend a lot of time doing analysis and modeling," Baker said of the engine system. "But the biggest challenge is there is only so much you can test on Earth."

Though he's confident, Baker likens his team's nervousness to that of an expectant father.

"We're trying to land this thing 150 million miles away and the outcome is not certain."

And on the off chance things do go wrong, it will be up to Schratz's team to ensure that NASA's engineers can diagnose and hopefully solve the problem.

"It's a sobering job to be responsible for measuring the pulse of the spacecraft in the event we lose it," Schratz said.

Curiosity's landing will be one of the most daring and challenging ever executed by NASA. Because the rover is the size of a small car, Curiosity won't get the inflated-ball landing NASA's previous two rovers received.

Instead, the descent stage — powered by Baker's team's engines — will slowly lower Curiosity to the ground before flying off and crashing at a safe distance.

A JPL video showing a simulation of the landing can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BudlaGh1A0o and an explanation of the difficulty of the landing can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=syA7ml64zY4. The landing, scheduled for 1:31 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 6, will be broadcast live on NASA TV, the agency's website and in New York's Times Square.

"I can't wait to see the actual landing," Schratz said, adding that the team’s excited to examine the data sent back by the MSL. "We want to see if we're as good as we thought we were."

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Last Updated August 16, 2012