Penn State alum makes tracks on Mars as Perseverance rover springs to life

Penn State alum Rachel Kronyak poses next to a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park on a field trip to study biosignatures and astrobiology in the western U.S. Kronyak is now part of the NASA Perseverance rover team searching for signs of ancient life on Mars.  Credit: Provided by Rachel Kronyak All Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In its first weeks on Mars, NASA’s Perseverance rover has captured dazzling highlights, from video of its own dramatic landing to the first audio recordings from the red planet, the sounds of wind blowing and the rover’s laser zapping rocks.

But of all the breathtaking sights and sounds beamed back to Earth, one image stands out for Penn State alum Rachel Kronyak — tire tracks in the red Martian dirt.

Kronyak, a systems engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, helped plan the rover’s first drive, a 33-minute mobility test on March 4 that covered about 20 feet and created those tracks.

“The photos that came back showing the wheel tracks on the ground behind us after our first couple drives were so exciting to see,” she said. “It really makes us feel like we’re explorers, seeing new places for the first time. It’s just surreal.”

Kronyak is part of a team that works with scientists and engineers from around the world to decide what commands to assign the rover each day and then sends the instructions some 150 million miles to the surface of Mars to be carried out by Perseverance.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said. “We have to manage the scientific objectives to explore and collect as much data as possible with the engineering constraints like battery life and storage capacities. There’s definitely a lot of teamwork every single day, it’s a really incredible job.”

The team will spend at least the next Martian year, about two years on Earth, guiding Perseverance on its mission to search for signs of ancient microbial life in Jezero Crater, an area believed to be a lake in Mars’ deep past.

“We’ve spent a lot of time preparing for this moment,” Kronyak said. “Now that the dust has settled and the rover is on the ground, we get to do our job. And it’s been really incredible to be part of this.”

The NASA Perseverance rover captured an image of its own tire tracks in the Martian dirt during its first drive on March 4 in Jezero Crater.  Credit: NASA/JPL-CaltechAll Rights Reserved.

The long road to Mars

For as long as she can remember, Kronyak dreamed of being an astronaut. But it was her time at Penn State, she said, that placed her on the career path to become a Martian.

At an orientation before her first semester, Kronyak learned about the Women in Science and Engineering Research (WISER) program that could place her in a research laboratory right away. Overcoming her nerves, she applied and was accepted into the program, administered by the NASA Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium.

“To have that research program specifically for first-year students was the greatest thing for me,” said Kronyak, who received her bachelor’s degree in geobiology from Penn State in 2014. “When you go to a big school, it can be overwhelming to find your place, but those lab experiences at Penn State really set me up for my future. Without that, I have no idea where I’d be today, to be honest.”

Through the program, Kronyak was paired with her future adviser, Christopher House, professor of geosciences and director of the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center.

“With her interests in geology and astrobiology, it was a pleasure to work with Rachel and to get her involved with authentic, hands-on research early in her University education,” House said. “I’m proud to see how her career has developed and of her accomplishment in joining the Perseverance rover team.”

Kronyak said her work in House’s lab inspired her senior thesis, which in turn led to internships with NASA. Those experiences convinced her to attend graduate school at the University of Tennessee, where she earned her doctorate in geology and began working on the NASA Curiosity rover program, a previous mission to Mars.

Kronyak explores a lava tube in Hawaii while participating in NASA's Planetary Volcanology workshop in 2019.  Credit: Provided by Rachel Kronyak All Rights Reserved.

After graduating, Kronyak was hired by NASA, where she has continued working on the Curiosity mission, alongside House, and now on the Perseverance mission.

“I’m always nostalgic when I get to do an operations shift with Curiosity, and it’s even more fun because my adviser from Penn State, Chris House, is on the team as well,” Kronyak said. “It came full circle and working together is so much fun.”

Mission on Mars

After months of planning and preparation, there was nothing left to do for Kronyak but sit in her living room and anxiously watch the NASA livestream of Perseverance’s landing on Feb. 19.

“I was at home in my apartment watching on TV just like everybody else because of COVID-19 restrictions,” she said. “It was surreal, but I was jumping up and down and almost in tears when we got the touchdown confirmation signal. I’ll never forget that moment.”

The joy and excitement quickly turned to the realization that all eyes would now be on the surface operations team. It would be Kronyak’s turn to return to the office for the 12-hour shifts that determine the course of the rover’s actions on any given day.

“Perseverance is sort of the latest and greatest in rover technology and we’re building upon what we’ve learned with previous missions,” she said. “With this mission, the goal is to search for signs of ancient life at our landing site.”

That’s a big task. But the rover is equipped with sensitive instruments that can drill rock samples and test them for things like small traces of ancient organic material. The rover also is the first that can store those samples, which may someday be returned to Earth for further study.

“We’ve spent so much time looking at the landing site from orbit and making guesses and hypotheses about what we’ll find,” Kronyak said. “Now we get to test those hypotheses and see how these rocks formed. There are so many things to be excited about.”

Kronyak and Michael Tuite, members of the NASA Perseverance rover team with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, train for the mission in the Nevada desert, a stand-in for Mars. During the February 2020 exercise, the team played the role of a rover, receiving commands to seek out images and other data. Credit: Provided by Rachel Kronyak All Rights Reserved.


Last Updated March 25, 2021