"Incredible": Indian-origin Nasa engineer Vandi Verma drives Perseverance rover on Mars

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Indian-origin NASA engineer Vandi Verma (Image: NASA)
Indian-origin NASA engineer Vandi Verma (Image: NASA)

New Delhi : Indian-origin NASA engineer Vandi Verma said, "Jezero is incredible". She drove Perseverance rover on Mars to find ancient microbial life on the floor of the Jezero crater.

Verma drove the SUV sized rover through the tenuous terrain of the crater believed to be the site of an ancient lake.

She hails from Halwara in Punjab, her father was an Indian Air Force pilot. With a Ph.D. in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, Vandi Verma has an experience of driving rovers on Mars since 2008. She has successfully steered Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers in the past.

The Jezero crater, which is Verma’s operational ground these days, is believed to be a lake site billions of years ago, when Mars was wetter than today. During its journey, the rover will gather samples over some 15 kilometres stretch and then prep them for collection by a future mission that would take them back to Earth for deeper analysis.

Since the radio signals between Earth and Mars are delayed, the rover cannot be driven using a joystick, and engineers have to rely on commands to be executed beforehand. They rely on satellite images of the crater and use 3D glasses to view the Martian surface in the rover’s vicinity. Once the team has the course ready, they beam the instructions to Mars, and the rover executes those instructions the following day.

“It’s a rover driver’s paradise. When you put on the 3D glasses, you see so much more undulation in the terrain. Some days I just stare at the images,” Verma said as the rover trundled on the surface of the Red Planet over 300 million kilometres away.

The rover, at times, will take charge of the drive-by itself, using a powerful auto-navigation system. Called AutoNav, this enhanced system makes 3D maps of the terrain ahead, identifies hazards, and plans a route around any obstacles without additional direction from controllers back on Earth, Nasa said in a statement.

The rover also keeps a track of rover’s path using a system called “visual odometry.”