As the Perseverance rover landed on the Mars surface last week, Darin Skelly watched from his living room, with engineering notes in hand.
A former NASA engineer and operations integrator, Skelly supported many of the early Mars-focused missions in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), for example, Skelly specialized in the integration between satellites and robotic vehicles.
That launch and integration expertise allowed him to work on the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft, which landed a base station with a roving probe on Mars in 1997, and other early rovers like Sojourner, the 2001 Mars Odyssey, and the MER-A and MER-B probes. Skelly was the mission integration manager for the April 7, 2001 Mars Odyssey launch.
Skelly has since moved from NASA to a Herndon, VA-based national-security company that supports all of the communication systems for the Deep Space Network . The international array of 70-meter antennas provides the communication links between the engineers on Earth and the mission and science instruments on Mars.
Skelly is Vice President for Peraton, where he leads Civil Space Business Development. (The V.P. is also a systems-engineering professor at Georgetown University.)
Though Skelly moved to the private sector, last week's successful landing brought back memories of his early civil-servant days at NASA.
"I was sitting with my family around the TV," Skelly told Tech Briefs. "I had all my timelines and my event tags and I'm checking them off, and I'm listening for the confirmation commands."
After the viewing in the living room, Skelly caught up with the program manager who runs the Deep Space Network.
"He said, absolutely, it was flawless," said Skelly. "I mean, they hit every mark."
With the rover's successful landing in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, just before 4 pm ET, a new Mars exploration-mission begins.
The Perseverance rover, in fact, will use its seven science instruments to search for signs of past life. Perseverance even has a helicopter, known as Ingenuity.
In an edited Q&A below, Skelly spoke with Tech Briefs about how he felt during the Perseverance landing, and what he's most looking forward to finding out about Mars.
Tech Briefs: To me, it's always interesting to watch the reaction when a rover finally touches down. I think that's the most enjoyable aspect in some ways: to see everyone celebrate all the hard work that's been done. But that means, these situations are also very nerve-wracking, so I was curious. What do you think was the most challenging aspect of the Mars landing? Where do you think everybody was perhaps holding their breath the most?
Darin Skelly: I have to celebrate these events as if I'm on the current team right now. I go back to my days of Pathfinder, Sojourner, Global Surveyor, and Odyssey, and I remember tears welling up in my eyes.
At Peraton we run all the communication networks for these [rover missions]. And we created, manufactured, and applied Acusil , which is the thermal ablator on the back shell of [the spacecraft]. I think my nerve-wracking moment was watching the rover go through the the extreme heating. Starting up engines that have been sitting for a long period of time, in the cold depths of space, and getting them up to full thrust, and having them respond quickly, is critical.
Tech Briefs: What else were you nervous about?
Darin Skelly: I was even nervous about all the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) activities and the parachute. Hypersonic parachutes are always scary to me in the way that they have to slow down the vehicle. So, all of that is concerning.
Tech Briefs: Is the excitement of a Mars landing any different during a pandemic?
Darin Skelly: It's just something good to rally around right now. It's something that we can all take a lot of pride and success and give you a sense of nationalism and pride inside. And we need that right now.
Tech Briefs: Why is this rover's work especially important? What are you most interested in discovering?
Darin Skelly: One is MOXIE , which handles in-situ oxygen development. That's critical, if we truly want to go and effectively proceed on NASA's Artemis vision with the Moon and on to Mars. If we really want humans on Mars, we can't bring everything. We have to be able to live off the environment and produce some stored oxygen, and MOXIE is one of the first precursors to being able to bring humans out there.
And then: the Ingenuity helicopter. Can you imagine when we have a set of drones as assistance to humans exploring, and then taking that technology to where there is liquid water within the universe and other planets and some of the moons?
Yes, Mars is a hostile environment, but compared to some of the other environments, this is a good place to go figure out the technology.
Tech Briefs: How confident are you in the helicopter?
Darin Skelly: It's an outside-observer perspective. Being that I'd worked at JPL, I've seen all the details of the development. I know the protocol, the rigor, the way that they simulated the 1% atmosphere, the way that they offset gravity, the speed that they have to rotate the rotors.
I have a lot of confidence. I mean, yesterday's landing just gives you all that confidence, right? From the technology that I've seen and supported, the JPL teams are not going to send it unless it's it's ready to go. I have confidence. But you're never surprised and you learn from failures and anomalies. So, let's just keep our fingers crossed.
Tech Briefs: Why bring a helicopter to Mars? Can you kind of bring us through an example of why it's helpful to test out a helicopter.
Darin Skelly: You're going to get much greater capabilities around visualization and planning ahead for future sites that can be support-assets to the human presence when it's on the planet. It could be a demonstration and verification of technology. As we start to evolve and go to other planets, where robotic missions like Curiosity or Perseverance can't go, the helicopter could be an aerial science platform. Having drones that are vetted out on Mars is a great first step.
Tech Briefs: From a technology perspective, what do you think is the most impressive tool?
Darin Skelly: What I'm always amazed by, even going back to some of the missions that I was leading as mission integration manager, is talking to the orbital mechanics and the Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) leads: The teams that do all the mission planning for landing. You can equate it to threading a needle in New York City while sitting in L.A. I mean, that's how precise these guys and gals have gotten. It's phenomenal engineering and capability and precision.
Tech Briefs: What were some of the most daunting technical problems do you think and and how were those addressed?
Darin Skelly: I can't really go there on this particular mission because I wasn't part of the mission development program. One thing is certain: You have to get off the launchpad within a limited launch window, to meet up with the planet, with the injection energy to transfer orbits, that you need to get to it. To me, that was always very daunting, and the only way that you could address it was applying more labor and more energy and more passion to it, to resolve any challenges, and get past any technical issues. Because that's the hard line in the sand.
And can you imagine a multi-million or multi-billion dollar mission where you have a line in the sand?
And guess what? We're going to get there no matter what. That really drives a team uniquely, and it builds in a camaraderie and a family feel in these teams that is really unique and special. And that's why I've spent my whole career on focusing on Mars, because of that sense of community that you build through these missions.
Tech Briefs: So what are you going to be watching for now? What are you going to watch for next? To ascertain whether these systems are working as intended?
Darin Skelly: I'm an armchair quarterback now. I'm sitting back and watching this as a civilian and enjoying every moment of the discovery.
Of course, one of the big events that is coming, is dropping down the helicopter underneath the belly of the rover. Seeing that thing take off, to me, is absolutely going to be breathtaking. I can't wait to see some of the videos coming back.
Any success around caching of the samples and getting the locations where they find microbial existence — that's going to be so exciting to me.
What are you most excited to learn from this Mars-exploration mission? Share your thoughts and questions below.