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As a part of Nationwide Geographic Dwell, Chief Engineer Kobie Boykins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been touring the world of late. As a part of this system’s objective of getting featured audio system share their behind-the-scenes tales, Boykins has been showcasing the accomplishments of NASA’s Mars robotic exploration packages – of which he performed a significant function.

This week, his tour introduced him to my hometown, the place he delivered a presentation to a packed home on the Royal Theatre right here in of Victoria, BC. Titled “Exploring Mars”, Boykins shared private tales of what it was wish to be an integral a part of the staff that created the Sojourner, Spirit, Alternative, Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers. I had the distinction of attending the occasion, and with the ability to do some Q&A with him after the present.

In relation to the exploration of Mars, there are few extra certified than Boykins, whose work with NASA JPL goes again to the Mars Pathfinder mission of 1997. It was presently that Boykins, whereas nonetheless a school scholar, helped fabricate the cleats used on the Sojourner rover’s wheels. Since then, he has gone on to guide the staff that designed the photo voltaic arrays that powered the Spirit and Alternative rovers.

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Kobie Boykins talking as a part of his Nat Geo Dwell “Mars Exploration” lecture. Credit score: Nationwide Geographic

He and his design staff have been additionally accountable for creating the actuators on the Mars Curiosity rover and was the supervisor of the mobility and distant sensing groups (MAST) for Curiosity and Mars 2020. And on the subject of partaking the general public on the advantages of house exploration and sharing his inspiration, Boykins is a veteran there too.

In 2002, Boykins joined “Marsapalooza”, a staff of younger scientists who toured as a way to consciousness of the Mars Exploration Venture. In 2003, he turned a part of NASA’s M-Staff, which lectured nationally to college students concerning careers within the STEM fields. And by 2006, he was featured within the JASON Venture Expedition “Mysteries of Earth and Mars“, a curriculum program designed to encourage center schoolers to pursue careers in science.

The presentation started in earnest with Boykins sharing anecdotes of what it’s wish to be an engineer engaged on a NASA mission and what impressed him to turn out to be a NASA engineer within the first place. As a local of Nebraska, Boykins grew up in an space the place there was little mild air pollution. On a transparent night time, he and his sister would climb onto their roof to lookup on the night time sky and ponder the chances.

The main target then shifted to the exploration of Mars and a lesser-known facet of issues. With a concentrate on two packages – the Mars Exploration Rover (Spirit and Alternative) and the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity and Mars 2020) – Boykins offered a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes at JPL and what it’s wish to be an engineer engaged on the robotic explorers.

This started with Boykins sharing official NASA animations of the Alternative and Curiosity rovers leaving Earth and journeying to Mars in 2003 and 2011. This included the launch aboard two multi-stage rockets (a ULA Delta II Heavy and an Atlas V, respectively), months of touring between the planets, after which managed landings involving parachutes and/or inflatable balls and skycranes.

All through, he offered a play-by-play of the know-how concerned, the intensive testing and planning that went into the launch, flight, touchdown, and deployment of every rover. As Boykins made clear throughout the course of his presentation, a substantial period of time and preparation goes into probably the most fundamental of actions, whether or not it’s attending to Mars or commencing science operations as soon as on the floor.

And given the time lag between Earth and Mars when they’re closest – 6 to 10 minutes, relying on whether or not the mission has entered the environment – the touchdown course of is an actual nail-biter. As Boykins put it:

“From the time we hit the higher environment of Mars ’til the automobile is bouncing alongside the floor, takes six minutes. However one-way mild time from Mars – i.e. if a sign was despatched from Mars and despatched again to Earth – that sign would take ten minutes. So after we hit the higher environment, the rover despatched a sign again to Earth. Six minutes later, that sign was not at Earth, however the rover was bouncing alongside the floor of Mars. 4 minutes after that, we obtained a sign that it hit the higher environment. There’s nothing we will do as human beings to repair or save that automobile on its means in the direction of the floor of Mars. If it doesn’t make it, it’s only a unhealthy day.”

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Right here lies one other concern that Boykins’ addressed, which is the fabled “Mars Curse“, which refers back to the 40% success fee house businesses have had when making an attempt to land on Mars. However as he demonstrated utilizing a graphic that confirmed the completely different touchdown zones for NASA missions over time, the vary has narrowed significantly, owing to advances in know-how – notably by way of communication, navigation, and steerage methods.

Highlights from each missions adopted, which included how the Spirit and Alternative rovers vastly exceeded their mission parameters (function for 90 days and journey 600 meters). For its half, Alternative remained in operation for nearly 15 years and traveled a complete of 45.16 km (28.06 mi) – setting a brand new file for off-world distance travelled.

Whereas the rover’s mission was formally led to February, Boykins indicated that they might try and make contact with it once more sooner or later. One other spotlight was the mysterious rock that Alternative present in its touchdown space in 2005, which turned out to be the stays of an iron meteorite. This was the primary meteorite of any sort to ever be recognized on one other planet, but it surely was not the final.

Three Generations of Mars Rovers within the ‘Mars Yard’ on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Pathfinder Venture (entrance) landed the primary Mars rover – Sojourner – in 1997. The Mars Exploration Rover Venture (left) landed Spirit and Alternative on Mars in 2004. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August 2012. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

For Curiosity, the highlights included the small ball-shaped steel meteorite it got here throughout and studied with its laser, the various strains of proof that the Gale Crater (the place it landed in 2012) as soon as held a standing physique of water, and the second the staff realized that Curiosity‘s wheels have been choosing up holes. One other vibrant spot was Boykins clarification of how the Sojourner, Spirit, Alternative, and Curiosity rovers have been all named.

In a convention going again to the Pathfinder mission (1997), this was accomplished with an essay contest, the place college students from all around the US submitted concepts based mostly on what house exploration means to them. Again in September, NASA introduced that it was in search of companions for an additional such contest, the place Okay-12 college students can have the possibility to call the Mars 2020 rover.

What adopted was some Q&A, the place the viewers obtained to ask questions on what it’s wish to work at NASA and what lies forward for Mars exploration. One factor that Boykins was clear on was that humanity shouldn’t look to Mars as a “backup location”, which places him within the camp reverse folks like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawkins.

The rover wheels utilized by the Alternative (left) and Sojourner (proper) rovers. Credit score: Carla Jack

The excessive level of the night – for me, anyway – was the casual Q&A session that occurred after the speak was over. Boykins not solely let folks deal with the rover wheels he introduced with him from JPL – the identical variety that have been used on the Sojourner and Alternative rovers (proven under) – he additionally let folks get some footage with him. I used to be one such particular person, as you possibly can see from the picture at high.

For his accomplishments, Boykins was awarded the NASA Distinctive Service Medal, the best honor that may be bestowed upon a civilian. Wanting forward, he may even play a significant function in creating the Europa Clipper mission, which might be exploring Jupiter’s satellite tv for pc for indicators of attainable life beneath the floor.

As a part of Nat Geo Dwell’s “Exploring Mars”, Boykins might be presenting to audiences throughout North America till January of 2020. To see the place occasions might be going down (or to e-book an occasion) try the tour dates right here. And make sure to try a few of Nationwide Geographic’s function movies, the place Boykins’ discusses Mars exploration, the significance of planetary safety, and the 22 years he has spent working with NASA JPL.

Additional Studying: NAT GEO

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