LOS ANGELES – Mexican-born engineer Luis Velasco works at NASA on the digital design of robots visualized in 3D images before they are built, and he will provide his expertise to the Mars 2020 automatic rover.
“This mission is almost a replica of the one we sent earlier,” Velasco told Efe, referring to the Curiosity robot that landed on Mars in August 2012.
“We call it MSL and it is a scientific laboratory roving on tires,” Velasco said.
The new robotic rover will incorporate some changes “to prepare for human exploration” of the planet, Velasco said. “There are some modifications and I am working on one of them, focusing on where to collect particles that we might want to retrieve later.”
Velasco’s grades at his high school in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas earned him a scholarship to study mechanical engineering at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
“Ours is a group of experts in computer programming technologies used in the design, simulation and different types of analyses conducted totally in a digital way,” he said.
“We design artifacts so that, before we start building the actual piece, we have a 3D digital model,” the 43-year-old Velasco said.
Velasco noted that early Mars rovers landed on the planet’s surface by bouncing on balloons that absorbed the impact and then deflated, while Curiosity, being bigger and heavier than its predecessors, used rocket propulsion to slow its descent.
“But a three-dimensional computer simulation showed the heat field from the rockets on the descent platform on Mars would burn the rover,” the engineer said.
“So, along with another colleague, we suggested the design engineers make changes in the platform’s structure, moving the rockets to prevent the heat from affecting the rover and its scientific instruments,” Velasco said.
The design of Mars 2020 is in its preliminary stages and engineers are pondering the novel idea of adding a tiny helicopter that would lift the vehicle, avoiding obstacles on the ground during its exploration of Mars.
Velasco said his family taught him to appreciate science by studying the pre-Columbian Maya culture of Mesoamerica.
“The Mayas created calendars, mathematics, science and humankind would benefit a lot from understanding all they left us in writing,” the NASA engineer said.
Velasco encouraged young Hispanics to focus on the sciences and mathematics, “like the Mayans did,” and to graduate from college and find jobs at NASA.