Curiosity landing – The Indian behind the show

You all know by this time, NASA’s Curiosity mission is a unmanned landing of fully featured Robot in Mars to explore whether anybody there (To know whether any life exists in Mars).

The mission is reported by NASA as successful. NASA has released series of official video after Curiosity Landing. We are giving two of those here.

The Indian behind successful landing of Curiosity:

The times of India news magazine covered another interesting news behind this much hyped story – The contribution of Indian Entrepreneur Mr.Ranjith Kumar in the evolution of this project.

The world watched as Curiosity, the Mars rover, triumphantly landed on the red planet this week. There were whoops of joy and euphoria among those who had toiled for years to make this possible. But for one Virginia-based Indian entrepreneur and engineer, it was a moment of quiet elation. Dr Renjith Kumar , 49, is the CEO of a company which was closely involved with the rover’s Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL), or what is now being famously called the “seven minutes of terror” . So exhausting has it been in the last few months that when Sunday Times contacted Kumar, he was packing his bags to go on a relaxing holiday to Canada.

Ranjith Kumar the man behind Curiosity landing in marsAnalytical Mechanics Associates (AMA), Kumar’s company, has been in the forefront of the Mars mission since its inception. But then, AMA is an old hand at Mars missions, be it the Mars Pathfinder, Mars Exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity, or the Mars Science Laboratory. AMA’s dedicated work for Nasa finally paid off. On February 13 this year, just as it turned 50 years, the company bagged a five-year contract worth a whopping $327.5 million with Nasa’s Langley Research Center. Nasa also conferred its highest honour for Quality and Performance, the George M Low Award, to AMA in 2010. It was named after Nasa’s former deputy administrator and a leader in the early development of space programmes like Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

AMA’s beginnings were humble. It was started by three mathematicians in 1962 in New York. Today, this aerospace engineering company has close to 250 employees and works with defence , automotive, financial services and healthcare companies.

In the case of Curiosity, AMA had computer-simulated the dynamics of the spacecraft after it enters the Martian atmosphere. This included accurately modeling the Martian atmosphere and coordinating between various parts of the spacecraft such as the parachute, bridles, heatshield.

“We predict what the spacecraft is going to do during the actual mission,” explains Kumar. “We were also involved in the spacecraft instrumentation called MEDLI (Mars EDL Instrumentation), which will measure aerothermal environments , vehicle orientation and atmospheric density. We are eagerly awaiting data from Curiosity to do postflight analysis which will be useful for future manned missions.”

Kumar admits that the “seven minutes of terror” was indeed terrifying as a lot of money and effort was at stake. “The mission cost upward of $2.1 billion. Moreover, Curiosity was heavy (about 1 ton) and the previous methods of airbag deployment at landing as used for Pathfinder wouldn’t work here. A new, never before-attempted idea — Sky Crane — was used for this mission where instead of rolling the rover off an elevated lander, it was attached to the bottom of the rocket-powered descent stage, and lowered directly to the surface.”

But few in India know Kumar. This Thiruvananthapuram boy has come a long way from his palm-fringed state. He studied at Loyola School and College of Engineering where, in 1985, he got a gold medal for B Tech in Mechanical Engineering. Nothing could stop him from his grand ambitions after that. In 1986 he came to Virginia Institute of Technology to pursue an MS and a Ph D in aerospace engineering where he met his future wife Jayashree. She’s presently AMA’s COO.

Kumar has been watching India’s own forays into space and hopes its planned November 2013 mission to Mars is a success. Would he like to be part of it? “If Nasa is in collaboration with ISRO, say, through an MoU, we will be happy to be a part of this mission,” he says.

Courtesy: Times of India