Mission to Mars

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Meet one of the robotics engineers working on NASA’s Perseverance rover.

Nine months before the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance was scheduled to leave Earth, NASA robotics systems engineer Sawyer Brooks EAS’14 GEng’15 watched alongside some two dozen colleagues as the craft nearly botched its rehearsal of a crucial docking sequence the first time it was placed in Martian conditions (minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit).

A robotic arm was supposed to transfer soil samples from the ground to the rover. It had worked fine in Earth conditions, but now it moved alarmingly slowly. The telemetry scrolling across Brooks’ computer screen was looking uncertain.

“It’s a critical test and I’m getting really worried that the docking is going to fail,” Brooks recalls. “I’m watching this number that indicates how close it is to success. It’s just so slowly getting a little bit closer and closer. Finally, just a few tries before it gives up and declares failure, that number slips under the margin to be declared a success and docking finishes successfully.”

Since arriving at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, shortly after graduating from Penn, Brooks has primarily worked on testing the sample caching system for Perseverance, which is slated to land in Mars’s Jezero Crater on February 18. The main focus of the mission—which will also test technologies for long-term goals of human exploration—is to drill for rock and soil samples that might contain evidence of past signs of life, analyze them, and store them in tubes on the Martian surface for a future mission to retrieve and return to Earth.

Perseverance advances the science of Curiosity, the rover that captured the world’s attention in 2012 with its nail-biting landing on Mars. The new rover is slightly larger—at 10 feet long, 9 feet wide, 7 feet tall, and 2,314 pounds—and powered by nuclear, battery, and solar energy. Its caching system is comprised of three robots—a five-jointed, seven-foot arm carrying a rotary drill; a carousel that moves drill bits and sample tubes to the drill and rover chassis; and a 1.6-foot-long arm running sample tubes between storage, documentation stations, and the bit carousel. Together they contain more than 3,000 parts that need to work with clocklike precision.

Brooks is part of the team that tests the docking process—when the larger robotic arm twists around and presses into a dock on the rover to hand off a sample to the caching system for processing. “It’s an entirely new capability that we haven’t had on any other missions,” he says. The team has spent years testing the system in thousands of plausible scenarios it might encounter on Mars. Since Perseverance launched last July, the team has continued testing using identical rovers at JPL—a research facility, Brooks notes, that has “always been on my radar.”

During his freshman and sophomore years of college, “I was following Curiosity really closely as it moved towards the launch and stayed up to watch the landing,” he says. “Once that finally happened, around one or two a.m., I was so incredibly excited just following it online. I thought it was so cool that there were engineers who got to work on this one-of-a-kind hardware, and it blows my mind that, just a few years later, I was able to join them.”

Brooks grew up in Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. As a child of two civil engineers, he began tinkering with robotics kits at an early age, eventually founding his high school robotics team, before heading to the California Institute of Technology in 2010. But he missed the context of a broader education and community, and transferred to Penn the following year, lured by a rigorous engineering program within a liberal arts environment.

“Humanities classes and just being in a more well-rounded environment at Penn definitely helped me learn how to be a better communicator,” he says. Outside of class, he participated in a project to teach programming to Philadelphia public school students. “That was one of the things that I was looking for at Penn, the chance to see how engineering works in a broader community.”

Within engineering, Brooks gravitated to more hands-on courses, such as mechatronics, which had him designing, building, and programming different types of robots, and a senior design project building a solar-powered robotic boat for ocean exploration. (One of his classmates, Cristina Sorice EAS’14 GEng’14, is now also a robotic systems engineer at JPL working on autonomy technology for future missions to the moon and Mars.) Then there was a mechanical engineering lab, cotaught by Mark Yim [“Digital Natives in Tomorrow’s Classroom,” Nov|Dec 2007] and Bruce Kothmann, in which students built models to test theories they learned about in class. “One of the things I really liked about those labs is how much they relate to and continue to inform the work that I do today,” Brooks says.

Both Yim and Kothmann were impressed with Brooks’ dedicated and egoless approach to problem solving. Kothmann recalls Brooks inventing a test technique for a wind turbine project. “We had done this lab several years in a row and no one had ever thought of it before,” he says. “It showed a high level of conceptual understanding and creativity for a different way of doing it.”

After taking the lab classes, Brooks had suggestions for improvements and volunteered as a teaching assistant his senior year. “He was absolutely indispensable improving on existing projects, inventing new ones, and even helped run the demo events,” says Kothmann, adding that Brooks has since returned to Penn to help judge senior engineering designs. “He’s a very generous person eager to share ideas.”

That Penn engineering camaraderie has continued at JPL with Sorice, who sat at an adjoining cubicle before the pandemic struck and still brainstorms potential side projects with Brooks. “He’s the most reliable person,” she says. “Everyone at work thinks that, too. The overall opinion is, ‘Can we clone him?’”

It’s a trait that has served him well within the team-minded atmosphere at JPL, where Brooks is now gearing up for the rover’s touch down. “As soon as it lands, we need to be ready to hit the ground running,” he says. “When the scientists decide on a sample, our team is going to make that happen. It’s still a little surreal to me that this project I worked on is actually going to be operating on Mars. It really puts remote work into perspective. We’re working on something that’s 50 million miles away.” — Susan Karlin C’85

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