Swati Mohan steers NASA’s Mars rover to Red Planet

Swati Mohan
Swati Mohan; photo credit: NASA

India-born scientist’s little bindi creates a big buzz on desi twitter.

As US space agency NASA’s largest, most advanced rover Perseverance touched down on Mars Thursday, after a 203-day journey traversing 293 million miles, steering it to the Red Planet was Indian American scientist Swati Mohan.

“Touchdown confirmed,” announced Mohan, wearing a small bindi on her forehead, as rover landed safely at 3:55 p.m. EST amid cheers from the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena in Southern California.

“Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” she exclaimed.

A video of the moment, released by NASA, showing Mohan, who immigrated to the US as a one year old baby, with the traditional bindi worn by Indian women, created quite a buzz on desi Twitter.

“Big love for Swati Mohan, rocking that bindi in the control room,” tweeted  Sumen Desktronaut Rai.

“No more the Hidden Figure in Space,  ‘Lady with the Bindi’ Dr Swati has made proud & inspired women across to reach for & Mars!” wrote Lakshmi M Puri@lakshmiunwomen.

Many took to the microblogging platform to thank Mohan for wearing a bindi, saying that they had been bullied for doing the same.

“Gotta say I got feels seeing Dr. Mohan announce the rover touchdown. I wonder where those kids are who would tease me about my mom’s bindi back in the day (the Bay Area wasn’t always a vast melting pot of diversity),” wrote Chandan Narayan@GutStrings

Others called it a step towards building more diverse and inclusive work spaces.

“That’s Dr. Swati Mohan, sporting a bindi no less – esp resonant cuz memories still linger of racist/anti-immigrant “dotbusters”

#Perseverance,” wrote Tanvi Madan@tanvi_madan

Although her bindi captured most of the attention, less obvious was Dr Mohan’s braid — the Indian American scientist got her hair dyed blue for the occasion.

“EDL family voted and I drew the straw for dyeing my hair per their request for landing day. 7 hours to entry.  Landing approximately at 12:55pm.  At JPL and ready to go!” tweeted Swati Mohan@DrSwatiMohan

Over the course of her career with NASA, Mohan has worked on the Cassini mission to Saturn and GRAIL — a pair of formation flown spacecraft to the Moon, and has been a mainstay with the Mars 2020 mission since its beginning in 2013.

Raised in Northern Virginia and Washington DC metro area, Mohan completed her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, and her MS and PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Aeronautics/ Astronautics.

READ: NASA releases posters seeking workers for Mars (June 16, 2016)

She says her interest in space peaked after watching Star Trek at the age of nine, and it only increased when she took her first physics class.

“I was lucky enough to have a great teacher, and everything was so understandable and easy. That was when I really considered engineering, as a way to pursue space,” Mohan said.

Commenting on her team’s role in the current mission, Mohan said during the cruise phase heading toward Mars, their job is to figure out how the spacecraft is oriented, and make sure it is pointed correctly in space — “solar arrays to sun, antenna to Earth, and maneuver the spacecraft to get it where we want to go.”

Packed with groundbreaking technology, the Mars 2020 mission launched July 30, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The Perseverance rover mission marks an ambitious first step in the effort to collect Mars samples and return them to Earth, according to a NASA press release.

About the size of a car, the 2,263-pound (1,026-kilogram) robotic geologist and astro-biologist will undergo several weeks of testing before it begins its two-year science investigation of Mars’ Jezero Crater.

A primary objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology research, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life.

The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith, paving the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), will send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.


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