March 11, 2021

Dare Mighty Things

A UMass Amherst graduate oversaw the radar that helped deliver Perseverance to Mars

Millions of people worldwide were thrilled on February 18 when the robotic rover Perseverance touched down on Mars, 126 million miles from Earth. They held their breath as the complicated landing system, involving a parachute and a skycrane, deployed, and the rover settled gently on the Martian surface.

For UMass Amherst College of Engineering graduate Dragana Perkovic-Martin ’08PhD, watching the landing from her home office was a nerve-wracking experience. She and her team at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, were in charge of the landing radar for this NASA mission. “The whole sequence is executed fully automatically,” Dragana says, “And it takes 14 minutes for the radio signals from Mars to reach Earth. So there was nothing we could do at that point. You can only hope!” In fact, Dragana says, the seven years she spent working on the landing radar were more stressful than the seven minutes it took the landing gear to function. As she worked, she constantly wondered, “Did we miss anything?” 

A radar systems engineer and technical group supervisor, Dragana was involved from the beginning of the build of the landing radar system all the way through to its successful deployment. She analyzed test data taken during the radar system integration while the radar was put through its paces in different environments. Later, she continued to examine radar data as it was integrated with the rest of the descent stage. She says, “Throughout the whole process, you are asking: ‘Does it makes sense? Is everything okay?'"

The capsule that brought Perseverance to Mars launched in July. “We test the instruments throughout the seven-month cruise,” Dragana says. “The actual launch is a big shock and we run through the systems to see that everything survived. Finally, you get to the landing and your hands are completely tied.”

Jezero crater, the rover’s landing site. Photo: NASA/JPL-CalTech

As a child in Serbia, Dragana knew little about the US space program. Later, as an engineering student in Malta, she focused on telecommunications, not radar. But when she learned as a doctoral student in the UMass electrical and computer engineering department that she could work in the Microwave Remote Sensing Laboratory (MIRSL) and build and test radar in the field, she thought, “Who wouldn’t want to do that?” From MIRSL, she went straight to JPL, following a path blazed by UMass alumni.

Two UMass grads, in fact, worked on the radar that brought the Curiosity rover to Mars in 2012. These JPL engineers, Brian Pollard ’98PhD, lead radar system engineer, and Harry Figueroa ’05G, lead RF subsystem engineer, advised Dragana and her team as they worked on the Perseverance landing system.

Today, there are four UMass alumni on her JPL team, including Chad Baldi ’14G, lead integration and test engineer; Robert Beauchamp ’05, integration and test engineer; Karthik Srinivasan ’07G, lead RF subsystem engineer; and Ninoslav Majurec ’08PhD, RF subsystem engineer. “I know what these people are made of and what they are good at,” she says. “We communicate well.” 

With its landing gear gone in a billow of smoke and Perseverance beginning its search for life on Mars, Dragana and her team are focused on the proposal they made to NASA’s Discovery Program for a new radar mission—VERITAS, a mission to Venus. VERITAS would map Venus’s surface to determine the planet’s geologic history and understand why it developed so differently than the Earth. Getting mission approval is a rigorous, years-long, endeavor. The VERITAS team and three others have advanced to the final stages of the competitive selection process.

“I want to see this happen,” she says. “It’s a great mission, and if I can bring my UMass friends along, even better.”