Department of Computer Science | Dec. 10, 2012 | Spotlight

Cal State L.A. plays a role in Mars exploration

Arthur Amador and 3 fellow CSULA alumni among Curiosity’s mission team

Pictured: Arthur Amador. (source: JPL)

Astronomers and philosophers for generations have pondered whether there is evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars.

Now, with the latest news of the Mars rover, Curiosity, completing its first chemical test of soil from the Red Planet, we may be one step closer to answering some complex scientific questions, such as “Is Mars only made out of rocks and gasses?” and “Is Mars capable of supporting microbial life?”

This history-making exploration is made possible through years of hard work of engineers and scientists on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Project team, and one of those at the helm, Cal State L.A. alumnus Arthur V. Amador.

Amador, who serves as a mission manager, was responsible for leading the Curiosity mission team from launch through Mars entry, descent and landing this past August. The near-perfect landing on Mars captivated millions of people all over the world.

“It was the most amazing thing to witness the rover touch down on Mars. I felt like I was in a dream and everything was in slow motion,” said Amador, who was also part of the mission team for the twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, in 2003. “We developed a brand new landing system, incorporated hi-tech scientific instruments, addressed risks, conducted tests after tests, and contemplated numerous scenarios leading up to the landing.”

Curiosity is an unmanned robotic cruiser equipped with a scientific laboratory on board referred to as Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM). Its mission is “to search areas of Mars for past or present conditions favorable for life, and conditions capable of preserving a record of life.”

The MSL Project, which is run by the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington, is based in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA.

Amador, who completed his bachelor’s degree in computer science at CSULA, is currently one of a team of five mission managers in charge of executing the surface phase of the mission. His task is to assure that the rover is being operated safely and successfully, so that the scientific instruments are working effectively.

Other CSULA alumni contributing to the Curiosity’s mission include Ed Bennet, configuration management engineer; Dina El Deeb, tactical downlink lead and systems engineer for mission assurance support; and Bill Kert, contract negotiator.

Pictured: Mars Science Laboratory Project Team. (source: JPL)

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project Team celebrating after the successful landing of Curiosity on August 6, 2012. (Arthur Amador is the third person on the far right aisle raising both of his arms.)

“Most recently, we delivered the first sample of Martian soil to SAM, scooped up from the sand dune by the rover’s robotic arm,” said Amador. “We heated up the aspirin-size sampling of soil, essentially oxidizing the material up to 600-900 degree celsius, in order to determine the chemical compounds using spectroscopy and chromatography.”

The MSL team revealed that the preliminary results detected water, sulfur and chlorine compounds, but is currently analyzing the data further.

According to Amador, this month, the rover will begin drilling to obtain a pristine sample of a single rock and continue to test different rocks around the Gale Crater surface.

“It’ll be very interesting since it’s never been done before. We look forward to some compelling discoveries,” said Amador. “Then, ultimately, the rover is going to traverse toward the south and west to reach the flanks of Mt. Sharp at the center of Gale Crater.”

Amador believes that this Mars rover expedition is really significant in advancing the understanding of life beyond Earth.

“People will be naturally interested—to understand and make something incognito known,” said Amador, who began pursuing his own curiosity at an early age traveling off-road with his father and brother. “I love to explore, going to a place we have never been, looking at these panoramas or vistas people have never seen, and making a road on Mars that never existed before.”

Amador has been working at JPL for more than 25 years, and attributes CSULA’s Computer Science Emeritus Professor Donald Kiel for opening his eyes to the prospect of working at JPL. He joined JPL in 1987 to work on the software system for the Galileo mission to Jupiter.

“Professor Keil taught some interesting classes, and he inspired me with his stable and professional approach,” explained Amador, who was also a member of the CSULA chapter of the Association of Computer Machinery. “As I remember, Keil had a contact who was working on a weather project at JPL and recommended I apply for a job with him. I didn’t get that job, but I kept trying until I ultimately was successful in landing a position at the lab. I was also part of a computer programming student team that Keil put together.”

During his time on campus, Amador recalls computer labs with terminals and mainframes, unlike today when many students have their own personal computers.

“(Back then) many students gathered together in the lab to talk about computer science and related projects,” said Amador. “It was a very collegial atmosphere. I have fond memories of that, along with the breadth of experience at CSULA.”

Amador’s advice to CSULA students who are interested in pursuing a career in space exploration or working at JPL is: “Be competent. Know your stuff. Above that excel in it. Do your best. Get a job where you can be excited about, so you can be successful in that field. I am working at JPL because it’s something I am passionate about and I want to be part of something groundbreaking.”

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