ENGINEER ON NASA’S MARSIS INSTRUMENT TO EXPLORE MARS
Major and graduation year: Electrical Engineering, BS ’87; MS ’89; PhD ’93
Beyond the surface: Electrical engineering alumnus Ali Safaeinili designs radars to explore other planets in his position as a principal engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. “For the past nine years, I have been working on developing, deploying, and operating a particular type of a scientific instrument called a radar sounder that can ‘see’ beneath the surface. We currently have two radar sounders around Mars and I am the investigation scientist for both. These are the first such instruments to operate around another planet. For the most part, we have only observed the surface of Mars, but with this technology, we can see rock and ice beneath the surface,” Safaeinili says.
Taking the first leap: MARSIS, the first instrument created, flew to Mars in a European Space Agency spacecraft, the Mars Express, in June 2003. The next instrument flew on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in August 2005. Safaeinili says because MARSIS was the first of its kind, it was very risky, especially because its performance depends on the property of Mars’ surface and subsurface. “We didn’t know how it would perform in the end. It was truly a leap into the unknown.”
Location, location, location: Safaeinili says the highlight of his career has been the discovery of large amounts of ice on Mars, particularly because he says it was the most significant discovery researchers have made on Mars in a long time. “What makes it so important is the location where the ice was found. We knew there was a lot of ice in the Mars poles, but the poles are not hospitable places for a humans or even a robot. We now have confirmed the presence of ice in large quantities at latitudes similar to Detroit and New York City, which are much easier to operate from. An astronaut can melt the ice and decompose the water into hydrogen and oxygen to create a breathable atmosphere for human visitors.”
Shooting for the moon: Due to the success of the two devices on Mars, Safaeinili says it is almost certain that a radar sounder will fly on the recently announced NASA Outer Planet Flagship Mission spacecraft to Europa, a moon of Jupiter. The designated launch date is in 2020. “This will be a significant undertaking, and we hope that we at JPL can play a role in realizing the radar instrument that will be selected in a competition for the NASA’s flagship mission.”
Note: During the production of this article, we learned of Ali Safaeinili’s untimely death in July 2009. He kept his battle with cancer largely private, but we feel that his story is important for you to see. Our hearts go out to his family and friends.