Wesleyan Alumnus Works on Mars Rover

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Chris Kuhl is the second person from the right

West Virginia Wesleyan alumnus Chris Kuhl celebrated the successful landing of the Mars Rover, Curiosity, at 1:31 am EDT on August 5. The Winfield, WV, native graduated in the class of 1993 with a physics major. He is the Chief Engineer of the Mars Science Laboratory, Entry Descent and Landing Instrumentation project (MEDLI).

The Mars Science Laboratory was launched in late 2011. The Rover’s mission is to study whether an intriguing area of Mars offers environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for obtaining evidence of whether life existed there.

Kuhl reports, “Our initial data shows that MEDLI worked better than expected.  We will receive the full data set soon and expect the ultimate result to be lots of good science on heatshield aerodynamics and thermal protection systems.”

Biggest-ever heatshield is prepared for the Mars Rover spacecraft. This image shows the heatshield being prepared at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, in April 2011. Technicians in the photo are installing electronics for collecting data during descent through the Martian atmosphere.

The Rover traveled inside an apparatus called the Aeroshell, which has a thermal protection layer called the Heatshield (photo to right). MEDLI is a suite of sensors designed to measure the performance of the Heatshield during entry at Mars. Data from these sensors is stored in a computer on the Rover, to be transmitted back to earth at a later time.

Kuhl’s ultimate responsibility as chief engineer is to ensure that the system produces data to meet the scientific requirements of the mission. He works with a multi-disciplinary team involving NASA and many aerospace contractors.

The Mars Science Laboratory and rest of the spacecraft were built at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. In May 2011, the Heatshield was transported from Lockheed-Martin to the Kennedy Space Center on a military cargo jet. Soon thereafter, the Mars Rover arrived from Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Heatshield was mated with the spacecraft to prepare for launch. Once mated, we conducted the final end-to-end test before launch. Five hours prior to arriving at Mars, MEDLI was powered on and began taking data all the way through entry until the Heatshield was jettisoned and fell away to the surface.

Some of the MEDLI team members. Kuhl is the fourth person from the left.

“It is quite a thrill to work on a project such as this,” commented Kuhl. “The difficulties and obstacles that come with producing space hardware are incredible and nonstop. It has given me an appreciation of how technically difficult it is to send hardware to another planet, and why it is so expensive.”