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Meeting the top Taiwan engineers behind Mars rover ‘Perseverance’ (2021/04/07)

On Feb. 28, NASA's Perseverance rover landed on Mars. The fifth U.S. rover to reach the red planet was a masterpiece of hard work from many nations. Let's meet two of Taiwan's top engineers who contributed to the mission's success. Dr. Yen Cheng designed computer models, allowing the rover to be controlled from Earth, while Dr. Allen Chen took care of the crucial final minutes of the rover's journey, before it landed on the surface of Mars. Dr. Chen said he intends to come back to Taiwan to visit the National Space Organization once the pandemic subsides.

Dr. Swati Mohan, NASA aerospace engineer: Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life.

On Feb. 28, the Perseverance rover completed its seven-month, 480 million-kilometer journey to land on Mars. In Paris, New York, the U.K. and Switzerland, landmarks lit up red to celebrate arrival on the red planet.

NASA TV announcer: Looks like we have some more news – and it looks like we’re getting the first image.

Perseverance is the fifth U.S. rover to successfully land on Mars. NASA’s most advanced rover, it cost over NT$75 billion to build and has been called the best-equipped astrobiology lab ever to land on another planet. It has a drone tasked with seeking evidence of life on Mars, and will explore the age-old question of the planet’s habitability.

In the team behind the mission were two Taiwanese engineers. Taiwan-born and bred Dr. Yen led the team who designed and operated the rover’s computational modeling. Meanwhile, Dr. Chen, a Taiwanese American, engineered its descent and landing mechanisms.

Allen Chen, NASA systems engineer: I always like to joke that I wasn’t good enough at physics or astronomy to become a physicist or astronomer. But I can solve F=ma, over and over again, so that makes me a decent engineer. But the truth is, I like to build stuff. That’s the bottom line.

Like many Taiwanese emigrants, Chen’s parents were both accomplished scientists. He grew up in Pennsylvania and studied at MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, before getting his Doctorate in Management from UCLA.

Chen jokes that his science wasn’t quite up to scratch but his love of aerospace saw him through. With 15 years’ experience at the NASA Mars Science lab, he spent 10 years on the “Curiosity” rover. For Perseverance, he managed entry, descent, and landing – that means the crucial seven minutes between the rover entering Mars’ atmosphere and landing. It’s the riskiest moment in the journey.

Allen Chen, NASA systems engineer: The biggest challenges, really, with landing on Mars, come with our inability to test as we fly, right? There’s a mantra within JPL and at NASA, that we want to test as we fly and fly like we test. What that means really is that we want to be able to do as much as we can on the ground, to put the spacecraft through its paces, that it’ll see on Mars. Because Mars is far away, it takes 11.5 minutes or so for the radio signal to travel at the speed of light from Mars to Earth. So by the time we even find out that it’s started, the vehicle’s on the ground, one way or another, already.

A journey like that has no predetermined path. We asked for advice for a would-be aerospace engineer – and Chen said alongside curiosity and perseverance, you need to get up again and again after failure.

Allen Chen, NASA systems engineer: We should stake our – be willing to be daring, for the big payoff. Because we’re gonna stay in the arena, and fight. To follow those dreams right through, you know, having some perseverance to follow the dreams is gonna be necessary, right? You know, things are difficult. And it’s a difficult industry to break into.

For any aerospace engineer, working at NASA is a dream come true. And for Chen, getting the chance to come back to his family home in Taiwan is a dream as well.

Allen Chen, NASA systems engineer: The last time I went back was in 2013, I think? So about seven years ago? I’m sure it’s gotten even further since 2013, that… And it’s a beautiful place as well. I got to go to places in Taiwan. My parents took me to various places and there’s a lot of natural beauty, as well as great cities too, and good food. So I’d like to come back some day.

He says once the pandemic is past, he will land back in Taiwan, to visit to the National Space Organization, and partake once more in the delights of Taiwanese cuisine.
中文 Chinese  
「毅力號」成功登陸火星 陳友倫背後重要推手
















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