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Eric Gustafson: Exploring distant worlds

Just two years after earning his PhD in Aerospace Engineering at U-M, Eric Gustafson helped steer the Mars rover Curiosity to its landing site in the Gale Crater.| Short Read

Eric Gustafson got both his masters and doctoral degree from Michigan Engineering. He got both degrees in Aerospace Engineering; his masters in 2006 and his doctorate degree in 2010. He grew up in Midland, MI, but now works in Pasadena, CA for Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Just two years after earning his PhD in Aerospace Engineering at U-M, Eric helped steer the Mars rover Curiosity to its landing site in the Gale Crater. And it wasn’t easy: if Mars was the size of a basketball, his team had to hit a paper-thin window from about 5.5 miles away.

“We kept track of MSL’s location, made predictions on where it would be in the future, and designed maneuvers to correct its course,” Eric explained. Late at night on August 5, his team’s success in guiding the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to the right entry point in the Martian atmosphere was immediately followed by a sterling performance from the fully automated Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) system. With a 14-minute lag time on communications to and from Mars, MSL had arrived on the ground by the time Eric and his colleagues began receiving the play-by-play of the seven-minute landing process. Yet that didn’t keep them from feeling a surreal suspense.

“The events kept happening perfectly, like someone was just nonchalantly going through a checklist,” said Eric. “But even at the last second, hundreds of things could have gone wrong. When I heard the EDL team declare ‘Tango Delta nominal’, which was their not-so-secret code for a successful touchdown, reality snapped back and I was ecstatic.”

EnlargeEric Gustafson working at JPL.
IMAGE:  Eric Gustafson working at JPL.

“It’s hard to get science any cooler than a mega-Watt laser vaporizing rocks on the surface of Mars.” -Eric Gustafson

JPL might not be a household name, but it has held a place in Eric’s imagination from an early age. “When I was a kid, I was really obsessed with sharks and space.  Weird combo, but I read every book our library had about both,” he said. The credit on the captivating deep space images of planets usually went to JPL, “so in the back of my mind, I always thought that JPL would be a great place to work.”

Eric’s PhD advisor Daniel Scheeres, now at the University of Colorado, Boulder, began his career at JPL. Still, Eric wasn’t so sure he would get there himself until a colleague and U-M graduate encouraged him to apply. He considers himself lucky to have snagged a place in the groundbreaking Mars mission so soon after completing his degree, but he had extra preparation for communicating with spacecraft through the Radio Aurora Explorer (RAX) student satellite project. “I helped write the ground navigation software for RAX to more accurately process the on-board GPS data. That aspect is pretty similar to what I do now at JPL,” he said.

Even after contributing to a major mission like MSL, Eric has a soft spot for working on small satellites like RAX. “I’d say it’s a deeper sense of accomplishment because each team member’s contribution is a larger slice of the pie,” he said. In contrast to RAX’s team of about 45, MSL required a cast of thousands just to coordinate the entry, descent, and landing portion of the mission.

Eric continues to mentor the RAX-2 student team, and recently, he and some JPL colleagues met U-M students on RAX-2 and another Michigan satellite, M-cubed, on the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. SRI International, the scientific partner on the RAX mission, owns a 60-foot dish there. The student teams used it to communicate with their satellites, but first, they upgraded the receiver for faster data rates. “We climbed up the dish in the middle of the night with flashlights, laptops, and new electronics hardware,” Eric recounted. “It was awesome to be so close the hardware that makes it all work.”

Once MSL starts beaming its scientific results back to Earth, Eric is personally looking forward to findings from the ChemCam, which will investigate what the red planet is really made of. It will heat rocks until some of their molecules become a glowing gas. That light, recorded by the camera, will reveal the identities of the chemicals. “It’s hard to get science any cooler than a mega-Watt laser vaporizing rocks on the surface of Mars,” he said.

Eric Gustafson working at JPL.
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