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Exploring the Solar System with JPL’s Engineering Division Director Ann Devereaux

By Debra Werner

As Perseverance roams Martian terrain, scooping up samples, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is preparing to send spacecraft to the metal asteroid Psyche and Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Ann Devereaux, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Systems Engineering Division manager, shared the stories behind the missions with Steve Sidorek, AIAA public policy director; Christian Zur, U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive director procurement and space industry council; and Scott Kordella, MITRE space systems senior advisor, on the Space Policy Pod, a podcast sponsored by AIAA, MITRE and the Chamber of Commerce.

Devereaux was in charge of spacecraft systems engineering for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover and for the initial design phase of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. Their conversation was recorded on 19 February 2021, one day after Perseverance landed on Mars.

Here are five key takeaways.

Key Takeaways

It takes a village.
Hundreds of people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, other NASA centers, and contractor facilities contributed to the design, construction, and operation of the car-size Perseverance rover. The European Space Agency supplied three of rover’s seven instruments. “A huge way that our missions are successful is having foreign partners that contribute their own time and money and people and expertise,” Devereaux says.

Mars Sample Return is really three missions.
Perseverance is slated to collect dozens of samples of the Martian surface over the next year. Later in the decade, NASA plans to send a Sample Return Lander to the Red Planet and the European Space Agency is working on an Earth Return Orbiter. Best case scenario: scientists get their hands on Mars rocks for the first time in 2031.

Jupiter’s environment is intense.
“We can’t build spacecraft that can survive there for long periods of time,” Devereaux says. To cope with the harsh radiation around Jupiter, the Europa Clipper mission, set to launch in 2024, will spend four or five days at a time gathering data and imagery near the icy moon before moving to a safe distance. By combining data from all the close approaches, researchers will see Europa’s entire surface.

Psyche looks like a metal planet’s core.
Most asteroids are icy and rocky. Psyche, though, appears to be solid metal. “Since we can’t go and look at the Earth’s core very practically, we are interested in going to look at Psyche,” Devereaux says.  If all goes as planned, the Psyche mission will launch in 2022 and spend roughly three and a half years traveling to the metal asteroid.

Keep striving.
Devereaux was in India in 2019, soon after the Indian Space Agency’s Chandrayaan-2 mission succeeded in sending a spacecraft into lunar orbit but failed to land the Vikram rover safely on the moon. Although many people were disappointed with Vikram’s crash landing, Devereaux saw the Chandrayaan-2 mission as a major accomplishment. “We are barely a spacefaring race at this point,” Devereaux says. “Sometimes we fail. The important point is that people are stretching and trying to do things like this.”

For more first-hand details from Devereaux, like the moment Perseverance touched down on Mars and the decades-long campaign for Mars sample return missions, listen to the entire podcast, and join the conversation at ascend.events. ASCEND is the only community on the planet focused on building humanity’s off-world future — faster. We invite you to connect, debate, and help shape the future space economy.

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About Debra Werner

Debra Werner is freelance reporter based in San Francisco. She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

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