Hitting the Road to Mars

by Nagin Cox

  • Cornell University, Robotics & Psychology
  • Joined the US Air Force
  • Wanted to be part of JPL since she was 14
  • Been involved in Galileo, Spirit, Curiosity, and Opportunity

Full bio of speaker

Nagin Cox is a Systems Engineer and Manager at NASA/JPL. Nagin graduated from Cornell University with a BS in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering, as well as a BA in Psychology, and was commissioned as an officer in the US Air Force. She worked in F-16 Aircrew Training and received a masters degree in Space Operations Systems Engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology. As a captain, she served as an Orbital Analyst at NORAD/Space Command in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs. In 1993, joined JPL and has since served as a systems engineer and manager on multiple interplanetary robotic missions including NASA/JPL’s Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Mars Exploration Rover Missions and the Kepler telescope mission to search for earth-like planets around other stars. She is currently on the mission operations team for Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)- NASA’s next rover to Mars that launched in Nov 2011 and successfully landed in August of 2012. Nagin has spoken to audiences around the US, in Europe, and the Middle East on the stories of the people behind the missions.

Many NASA centers

  • Kennedy
  • HQ (I worked there)
  • ARC
  • JPL

About JPL

  • Used to be an Army base
  • Doesn’t do jet testing anymore
  • Does robots and exploration for NASA as part of Caltech

Four stages of planetary exploration

  1. Flyby
  2. Orbiting mission
  3. Landing
  4. Human exploration (only done on the moon)

About Mars exploration

  • First started going there in 1960s
  • Because of solar orbits, we can get there once every 2 years
  • Landing on Mars was first done in 1976 with Viking
  • Landed on Mars again in 1997 with Sojourner. Didn’t go far - only about 10 feet.

Spirit & Opportunity: Same mission in 1997 applied in 2003


She remembers the last day Spirit’s wheels moved on Earth

Landing the rovers

  • Needed a flat landing spot. Scientists wanted the grand canyon but the engineers wanted flat terrain.
  • Target landing spot is in a long ellipse pattern
  • You bounce many times at five stories high over 25 times.
  • Waited 10 minutes for the signal to come back after landing

Driving the rovers

  • Found lots of bedrock

  • Being stuck in sand happened while trekking over dunes

  • Rovers kept functioning longer and longer

    • Spirit stopped in 2010
    • Opportunity is still going as of 2012!


The next big step

Curiosity’s Capabilities

  • Robot field geologist
  • Mobile Geochemical laboratory
  • Nuclear powered
  • Really big!
  • Weighs more than a 2011 minicooper

Landing target

  • Landing ellipse is tiny compared to previous missions is tiny
  • Not using balloons for landing
  • Guided entry, spacecraft guided itself during descent
Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. – Ralph Waldo Emerson