An Indian American aerospace engineer at the University of Southern California was an integral part of helping NASA land Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity on the red planet.
Anita Sengupta, a NASA engineer and adjunct professor at USC, helped develop the parachute that assisted the $2.5 billion Curiosity hardware in making a successful touchdown on Mars, according to a USC report.
Sengupta, who graduated from USC with a masters degree in 2000 and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in 2005, developed the supersonic parachute that slowed the spacecrafts blistering descent onto Mars, the report said.
The parachute deployed 7 miles above the surface of the planet while Curiosity was careening toward the ground at 900 miles per hour at Mach 2.
At 70 feet in diameter, it was the largest parachute opening at the highest speed ever on Mars, it said.
Sengupta teaches spacecraft design in the Department of Astronautical Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Shes also an expert in Entry, Descent and Landing at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, according to the university report.
Her career at JPL began with the design of ion engines, a type of spacecraft propulsion system that generates thrust by accelerating a plasma, but she switched to EDL to broaden her knowledge and join the team that would land Curiosity on Mars, the report adds.
As an aerospace engineer, the more areas of expertise you have, the better able you are to work on a variety of mission types, Sengupta told the university.
Tests done in the 1960s and 70s in support of the Viking Lander mission have showed that, at speeds greater than 1.5 times the speed of sound on Mars, parachutes tend to inflate and collapse over and over, reducing their ability to effectively slow down falling payloads and in some cases resulting in the failure of the parachute, it said.
It kind of looks like crazy jellyfish. But with Mars EDL you only get one parachute so it has to work and survive, Sengupta added.
No one bothered to figure out why, until now when, due to the size of Curiosity, a 2,000-pound behemoth rover encapsulated inside a 15.5-ft. diameter entry capsule, it became necessary to design a massive parachute to survive at in excess of two times the speed of sound on Mars, the USC report continued.
Sengupta and her colleagues discovered that the turbulent wake from the falling entry capsule would modify the bow shock and pressure distribution in front of the parachute, causing the collapsing or deflating cycle that had been observed.
Armed with this knowledge, the team was able to design a parachute that was similar to ones used in the past but strong enough to survive flight through the Martian atmosphere, the report said.
Through careful ground testing in a vacuum chamber to simulate the Martian environment, Sengupta also analyzed how the engine plumes from the sky crane that lowered Curiosity to the ground would affect the terrain around the rover.
Though the landing parachute, sky crane and all was a huge success, Senguptas work is far from over. Up next shes designing a quantum physics experiment that could launch to the International Space Station as early as 2015, and then a spacecraft to explore the habitability of Europa, one of Jupiters moons that is covered in ice, possibly with an ocean beneath the surface, the university said.
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