The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) achieved a significant milestone this week in space exploration as its Perseverance rover made a touchdown on Mars. A mission such as NASA’s Mars exploration requires a huge range of expertise including several engineers including Vandana 'Vandi' Verma, the Chief Engineer for Robotic Operations for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover who drove the robotic explorer on the Martian planet after a seven-month-long journey in the space. NASA’s latest feather in the cap was added by a team that not only included women scientists and engineers but also people from diverse backgrounds.
Born and raised in Halwara, Punjab, Vandi Verma played a pivotal role in the Mars Preserverance landing on February 18 and is also the daughter of a fighter pilot working with the Indian Air Force. As per reports, she pursued her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh.
The rover stripped through the challenging atmosphere of Mars and landed safely on the Red Planet with Verma behind the wheels. The chief engineer performed the task using advance software such as PLEXIL that she herself co-wrote and created. As per reports, Verma was 11 when she first rode any vehicle which was a tractor. Verma had also driven the Curiosity rover that landed on the Red Planet in August 2012. Now, nine years later, she took hold of the most advanced astrobiology laboratory ever sent to another world. It was between her studies that Veerma acquired a pilot's licence.
The excitement and team spirit are one of my favorite parts of a rover landing. For daring missions like this you put complete trust in your teammates and it’s a special moment to watch the landing with others who have so much invested in it. pic.twitter.com/M9686E6nW0— Vandi Verma (@spaceroboticist) February 18, 2021
Vandi Verma is the second Indian-origin woman to have caught attention after Dr. Swati Mohan, the Indian scientist at NASA who spearheaded the development of attitude control as well as the landing system for the rover. Mohan caused a stir on the internet for her commentary of the historic Mars Perseverance landing.
Verma has been a part of NASA’s Mars rover since 2008 and has previously operated rovers including Curiosity, MER-A Spirit and MER-B Opportunity. Apart from driving robotic explorers in space, she has also worked to create flight simulation software among other systems that were utilised to land the Perseverance. After joining the United States space agency in 2007, she had also worked with Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Just over an hour and 15 to go! Lets hope I don't have too much more to do than think of heli dropoff location and first tracks, else we've gone Apollo 13. Traditional lucky peanuts in hand, not that I can have them with this mask on. pic.twitter.com/NlNk5P1tMb— Vandi Verma (@spaceroboticist) February 18, 2021
She finished her PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University in 2005. Verma’s research resulted in computationally efficient particle filter-based methods for non-parametric state estimation, with a focus on robot fault detection and classification. After Perseverance landing, Vandi Verma is still working on a range of projects led by NASA and has also bagged a huge number of awards including six NASA Honors Awards and two MSL awards since 2008.