From Bengaluru to NASA, Swati Mohan's perseverance is the key in Mars mission success

NASA's Swati Mohan at work
NASA's Swati Mohan at work. Image: Twitter

On Thursday night India time, many in the world were glued to the live streaming of the US-based NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) carrying out one of the trickiest space missions — of landing Perseverance, which has been a major topic of discussion among the global scientific community for some time now, on Mars by ensuring it touched down smoothly after entering the atmosphere of the planet at high speed.

NASA was showing live on YouTube that difficult phase of landing, also known as the '7 minutes of terror '. Among those involved in the Mars mission and watching the landing with bated breath from the headquarters of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California was Dr Swati Mohan.

In those tense moments, Perseverance pierced through the thin atmosphere of Mars. Soon after it entered the Martian atmosphere, a parachute was deployed to slow down the speed of the rover that was descending at 20,000 kilometres per hour.

Finally, after scanning and checking the landing area with the help of the latest technology, the rover made its descent. Eighty seconds later, the rover safely landed on Mars, touching down in the Jezero Crater area, which is suspected to have had water and supported life in ancient times.

The mission succeeded in one of the trickiest phases of the whole Mars exploration project. Dr Swati felt more gratified that joyful. Along with Perseverance, the mission also marked the success of a technology that was developed under her leadership. It is a technology that has the potential to create a revolution in the space sector in future.

The team led by Swati developed the technology called 'Attitude Control System Terrain Relative Navigation' that greatly helped the Perseverance rover to land on Mars precisely at the predetermined spot. This allowed Perseverance to scan the area before landing on Mars and decide where to land by determining the ideal situation.

The beauty of the technology is that it helped the mission to land on the surface by maintaining the upright position, preventing any problems caused by slanting or leaning and also ensured the solar panels opened up in a direction to capture the most amount of sunlight to power the mission. In a sense, this technology is the eyes and ears of the mission that has cost the US $279 million — it is a very crucial feature of the whole project.

All the missions sent on Mars earlier landed with a lot of risks as to the height during the descent was calculated with the help of radar. Also, there was not much clarity on where the missions would land. Moreover, small things like rocks, stones and pits on the surface of the planet were enough to ruin massive missions, undertaken by spending a lot of money and time, at the time of the landing itself. The new technology developed by Swati provides a solution to all these problems.

NASA's Swati Mohan at work
NASA's Swati Mohan at work

Perseverance pays off

Swati heads the guidance, navigation and control operations of the Perseverance Project. And it is her sheer perseverance that has taken her to such a high position at the age of just 38.

Swati came to the US from Bangalore when she was just a year old with her father and mother, who are engineers. They have their family roots in Tumkur in Karnataka.

She then spent most of her life in Virginia and the Washington, DC metro area in the USA. But when you look at Swati, she could be mistaken for a housewife in Bengaluru, an ordinary young woman dressed in Indian attire — and with a bindi on her forehead. Ask her why despite being in the USA for so long, and Swati will say that she likes to call herself an Indian American.

She has a special fondness for Indian culture. Although raised in the US, Swati says she has fully embraced the values and heritage of her homeland. Her attire may be simple, but there has been no such moderation in her education and career.

A graduate of Cornell University with a degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Swati later completed her postgraduate and PhD studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the leading international institutes of technology.

Star Trek Kid

Swati told 'Manorama' that the Star Trek series that she saw on TV as a child sowed the seeds of dreams about space in her mind. She was struck by the “beautiful views” of the galaxies and outer space shown in the episodes of Star Trek. Swati, like many children at the time, dreamt of going to space someday, and she had the willpower to make the dream come true.

Meanwhile, as Swati grew up, so did her desires. Her main hobby at that time was reading books about the universe and space. Even the movies she watched were about space. Space fiction movies and series were the ones she watched the most.

It was while studying physics during school that she thought about pursuing higher studies and a career in areas related to space.

She laid the stepping stones to work in the aerospace sector while at school itself when she completed internships at the Godard and Kennedy flight centres at NASA and also the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Swati's parents attached great importance to education. Students work to earn money to complete their studies in the US where a college education is relatively very expensive. But her parents assured her that she would not have to work anywhere and that they would take care of all her educational expenses if she got admission into a good college. Therefore, Swati could apply for unpaid internships and engage in extra-curricular activities such as satellite design and coding.

NASA's Swati Mohan at work
NASA's Swati Mohan at work

Cassini the starting point

Shortly after she completed her graduation, Swati was invited to work on NASA's historic Cassini mission. She was appointed as a junior engineer in the Cassini mission, which had the attention of the whole world. The mission’s greatest feature was the landing of the Huygens probe that accompanied it on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan.

This was the first such mission in the outer regions of the Solar System. Swati was a part of the process to launch the Huygens probe into Titan's orbit. This successful mission was instrumental in shaping her career.

After Cassini, Swati joined MIT for her postgraduate and PhD studies where she got a unique opportunity during her research period — an invitation to participate from the earth in the 'Spheres' experiment at the International Space Station. It was during this period that she learned how to design and experiment with algorithms for space systems. After Cassini, Swati also collaborated on NASA’s other missions such as GRAIL and OCO-3.

Mars 2020

Swati became a part of the Perseverance Mission in 2013. She got the opportunity just three years after she completed her PhD. Swati’s superiors opened the door for her in NASA's most heady mission of its time, impressed by her diligence and pursuit for excellence. She got the opportunity to work on a mission that would explore evidence of life on Mars in every sense.

Perseverance involved a lot of effort. In the initial stages, it was the usual 8-9 hours of work. But with the launch of the hardware testing phase of the mission, she had to work for more than 12 hours daily. This is an area where intelligence, observation and knowledge are required equally. In space missions, there is no room for even the slightest of errors.

The mission involved three stages of testing before the actual launch. During the testing phases, various difficult situations that could be encountered on Mars were simulated on Earth. When the stringent testing proved to be a success, NASA gave the green light to incorporate in Perseverance the technology that was developed under her leadership.

The Jezero crater on Mars, where Perseverance landed, was a water-bearing region 350 million years ago. If there ever was life on Mars in the past, this region is likely to have the remnants of it. The main goal of Perseverance is to explore such signs of past life, according to Swati.

The mission will also attempt to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide present in the Martian atmosphere. If this turns out to be successful, then it will provide a big leap for future Mars projects.

Swati's husband is a busy doctor in the US. They have two daughters. Swati says her parents, husband and her in-laws have been very supportive in helping her strike a balance between household chores and her work at NASA that is filled with a lot of responsibilities.

Working in the field of space often takes people beyond professionalism to a more philosophical level, Swati says. She says she has faced difficult times like when she did not get admission in the college she wanted and when an award that she deserved was not given to her.

But, today, Swati is driven more by the valuable experience she gains from each project than by the need for personal achievements. For Swati, the Mars mission is just the beginning. She says she wants to be a part of many more missions to outer space.

Europa (Jupiter’s moon), Enceladus (Saturn’s moon)… there are still a lot of goals ahead in the solar system itself.

Swati occasionally visits Bengaluru to visit her relatives in Karnataka. She also visited Thiruvananthapuram once in 2004.

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