FAIRMONT — The world watched and celebrated in February as NASA successfully landed its Perseverance Rover on Mars, which the agency’s Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility made possible through software testing.
Although the rover launched in July 2020, the IV&V Facility actually began working on the project seven years ago, helping sort out any glitches or issues in the code and preparing Perseverance for its 300-million mile journey to the red planet.
Wes Deadrick, the facility’s office lead, said that watching the rover successfully land on Mars after years of tests and research was quite the moment.
“It was a pretty momentous event watching that,” Deadrick said. “We have a history of supporting Mars missions going back several decades. … IV&V’s work on the Perseverance rover began in 2014, with our goal being to provide assurance to the agency for the inscope safety and mission critical software that’s going to run onboard the vehicle. …
“Given that we work primarily on software and we don’t get to touch the hardware, we don’t get the same gratification as the people who are working day in and day out with the hardware and seeing the development of it. A lot of the gratification we get comes through seeing the successful achievement of these key mission milestones. It’s an absolutely fantastic feeling to see the culmination of years of work actually come together and see that mission do exactly what it was supposed to do, exactly when it was supposed to do it.”
Perseverance is the first rover sent to Mars since 2012, and it comes equipped with a variety of tools and instruments to send crucial data back to NASA officials on Earth, according to Josh Revels, education outreach coordinator at the IV&V Facility.
“NASA’s team has put together an amazing rover with a lot of science instruments that hopefully will collect data from Mars in a way that we’ve never been able to collect data before,” Revels said. “The rover itself is going to be able to map the terrain that it’s moving across. It’s going to take spectrophotometric images of soil samples and it’s going to analyze the possible existence of water in Mars’ past and also maybe microbial life that lives on Mars.”
Revels explained that the rover landed in one of Mars’ large craters, which scientists believe may be an ancient lake.
While the Perseverance mission was certainly important, it hasn’t been the only thing the IV&V Facility has been dealing with recently. While the COVID-19 pandemic has hit a lot of companies and agencies hard, NASA IV&V Facility Executive Director Greg Blaney said the virus has not gotten in the way of the important work that goes on at the facility every day.
“(The pandemic had) no impact, really, from a performance perspective,” Blaney said. “I think it’s somewhat emotionally draining on some of the people, but we’re trying to deal with that and encouraging people to hang on, but the actual work performance has not decreased at all.”
Blaney said the primary reason the pandemic hasn’t affected the IV&V Facility like it has other agencies or businesses is because of the innate nature of NASA and those who work for the organization.
“We have really tried to focus on the opportunities that this COVID pandemic has given us versus the challenges,” Blaney said. “That kind of stems from our NASA background. NASA is focused on achieving the next thing, not what the challenges are or the obstacles. We look at those and say, ‘How do we overcome those? How can we build technology to overcome those?’ …
“That has boded well in that we see these challenges or what we think could have been restrictions or barriers, but the team stepped up and said, ‘We can overcome that. We can do this or we can do that.’ That’s why, in my opinion, this year has been extremely successful — because it just threw more challenges at us, and the folks have stepped up extremely well.”
Blaney said that currently, the IV&V Facility is working on 18 NASA projects ranging from the organization’s Artemis Project — which aims to get humans back on the moon — to more mundane, but still crucial, projects such as cybersecurity.
Deadrick said that the Artemis mission in particular is engaging.
“We have a lot of opportunities ahead of us with the Artemis mission,” Deadrick said. “I would say half of our program in some form or fashion is helping support the development that is taking place on the Artemis missions. It’s exciting to see that type of work take place in West Virginia.”
Deadrick explained that the IV&V Facility is also working with Goddard Space Flight Center on a project concerning “quantum computing”, which aims to boost the processing power of the agency’s computers.
“The use of quantum computing is something that’s going to make it significantly more efficient to solve computing tasks,” Deadrick said. “It also makes it feasible to tackle computational problems that currently are not feasible with binary processors that operate with ones and zeros.”
Deadrick explained that instead of bits, which normal computers use, quantum computers use what are called quantum bits. He said to imagine a sphere. Binary bits can only be at either pole of the sphere, but quantum bits can be anywhere on the surface of the shape.
“This means that a computer that’s using quantum bits can store an enormous amount of information and use significantly less energy in doing so,” Deadrick said. “When you consider how much classical computers revolutionized our world with just the two options of zero and one, you can imagine the possibilities when you have the processing power of quantum bits that can perform millions of calculations at the same moment.”
Finally, perhaps one of the largest projects the facility is working on is the launch of the Janes Webb Space Telescope, which is set to occur later this year after more than a decade of preparation.
“JWST is something that we as a program have been supporting for over 15 years,” Deadrick said. “I actually worked on it in the late 2000s, and it’s going to finally launch. It’ll be the longest IV&V science mission that we’ve ever done, and if my memory serves, it’s the third longest IV&V effort in our program.”
Looking at these projects and more, Deadrick said that this year and those to come will be very exciting for the NASA IV&V Facility.
“A lot of good stuff is going to happen in 2021,” Deadrick said.
Fairmont News Editor John Mark Shaver can be reached at 304-844-8485 or [email protected].
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