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.”