My Summer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Dhruv Parikh, SEAS Masters in Robotics, 2024

NASA, JPL located in Pasadena, is the biggest space robotics laboratory that fuels various space flight missions and other science projects. I had a fortunate chance to intern there as a foreign national and work on space flight mission, namely the Sample Recovery Mission. NASA and ESA are collaborating on a campaign to bring back the first samples of Mars material to Earth. Spearheaded by the NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover, this interplanetary relay team aims to collect and store samples on Mars. These samples would be transported to Earth in the early to mid 2030s, enabling advanced analysis in state-of-the-art labs. The crucial question of whether life ever existed on Mars could finally be answered through this historic endeavor.   

In case of an event which potentially impacts perseverance’s ability to deliver the sample tubes, NASA has incorporated a backup plan which is to send 2 Sample Recovery Helicopters to retrieve the sample tubes from a back-up depot of 10 sample tubes placed on Mars in January 2023 and transporting them back to the lander system. The Sample Recovery Helicopters are second generation Ingenuity helicopters which will be equipped with wheels and a manipulator.  

During my internship, I focused on the perception module of the surface navigation system, specifically working on the localization of the lander using onboard camera. My responsibilities encompassed building the experimental setup of the localization pipeline using fiducials, along with developing the software stack for its evaluation. Despite challenges, this experience offered invaluable insights into camera hardware, precise calibration, and the significance of addressing real-world precision requirements distinct from academic assumptions. 

One of the most thrilling aspects of the internship was the opportunity to engage with the visionary scientists who orchestrated past and current space flight missions and receive their valuable insights. Witnessing their distinct problem-solving approach, honed through experience, was truly inspiring. It was also exciting to see the systems engineering part of the campaign, mainly the thought process of coordinating various layers of subsystems and making sure everything works in coordination to achieve the objective. 

Disclaimer:  The research was carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, and was sponsored by JVSRP and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (80NM0018D0004). The decision to implement Mars Sample Return will not be finalized until NASA’s completion of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. This document is being made available for information purposes only.   

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2023 GAPSA Summer Internship Funding Program that is coordinated by Penn Career Services. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

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