Indians have been an integral part of NASA, be it in popular culture or real life. But this time, it’s not Mohan Bhargav but Vandi Verma making her mark at NASA.
In an interview with Inverse, Vandi Verma lets us take a peek into her work life, which might as well be the envy of many, including and especially video game enthusiasts. She is the Chief Engineer for Robotic Operations at NASA, responsible for the ‘Perseverance Rover’. Yes, that includes driving the rover on the rough terrain of the red planet.
She works out of the famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mission Control Room, with the windows covered because of the time zone difference between the two planets. One day on Earth is 24 hours, which on Mars is 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35.244 seconds. Her shift starts at 1.30 A.M in Pasadena, California, viz.6 P.M on Mars. Verma tells Inverse that working on another planet’s time zone is not all cake and has its toll on the body, but the quest to explore the possibility of life on another planet is what keeps her going. She can tap into the rover’s eyes, getting a first-person feed through 3D glasses.
She has been working with Perseverance for about 13 years, ever since she first started her Martian journey in 2008.
The Woman and The Rover
Vandi Verma was born and brought up in Halwara, India. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh and a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University.
Her engagement with NASA started in 2004, even before she became a graduate. Her thesis, titled “Tractable Particle Filters for Robot Fault Diagnosis”, was her hook, line and sinker. This is what put her on the radar of the scientists at NASA. She started working with the Rover team in 2008 and worked on Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers. The latter still roams the terrain of Mars. She also contributed to making the Perseverance Rover more autonomous than its predecessors by further developing the flight simulation software.
The unique thing about Perseverance is its extended run time and enhanced ability to identify and examine martian rocks. Despite being autonomous to an extent, it still needs commands to progress from the home base. She has developed a special relationship with the machine. To her, it is more complex and intelligent than an individual. This might be because many field experts have poured in their individual sophistication in its development, cumulating their intelligence into a single machine.
There have been a total of twelve rover drivers.
The Deep Space Network
How does it even work? That is a very valid question to have. How does a person sitting in a control room on earth controls a bajillion dollar machine on an entirely different planet? It sounds like science fiction, but it is not. This entire process occurs through an Interplanetary Communications System called the Deep Space Network, developed by NASA. In a typical 10 hour workday, Verma writes the commands codes for the rover, and it is then beamed up (similar to the movies) through the Deep Space Network. The Network comprises three deep-space communication facilities that use radio frequencies to transmit information through giant antenna setups with dedicated receivers.
The distance between the two planets is the reason why the transfer of information takes 20 minutes. The rover, upon the completion of its set task, sends the data back for examination. Upon which, further instructions are relayed.
Verma says that her work takes her to a whole another planet. After putting the 3D glasses on, she is immersed in the world of Mars. According to her, as she puts on the glasses, everything that looks flat and benign suddenly appears with depressions and undulations, making it life-like.
Combined with the time zone she works in and the immersive Martian experience every day, we can say that for all practical purposes, she goes to Mars every day.