To infinity and beyond

Yukon native part of Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover launch

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Yukon native Dr. Lauren White stands in front of the Mars 2020 Mission Perseverance Rover before it launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday, July 30. (Photo provided)

By Carol Mowdy Bond
Contributing Writer

From her vantage point at Cape Canaveral, Florida, Yukon native Dr. Lauren White watched history in the making when the Mars 2020 Mission Perseverance Rover launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, 7:40 a.m. EST, or 6:40 a.m. CST, Thursday, July 30. The landing on the red planet is scheduled to occur February 18, 2021, taking about seven months to complete the one-way trip.

NASA is exploring the past habitability of Mars. Perseverance will search for signs of ancient microbial life. The mission’s duration on Mars will last at least one year.

A published scientist, and part of the Mars 2020 project for six plus years, White said, “Perseverance has multiple science instruments and a mobility system and a caching/storing system. It also has the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, strapped to its belly, which will be deployed on the surface of Mars when we land, and it will be the first aerial flight on another planet. We’re not returning any of it to Earth except the sample caching system, which will take samples in tubes. Those will be picked up by the potential Mars Sample Return Mission, which is a joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency.”

A contamination engineer on Mars 2020 as it was built, the 30something White said, “At NASA, I am currently working in a new role on operability for the surface with engineering models of the hardware, and testing it in preparation for surface operations beginning in February. Some of us who do the testing will be working in missions operations. Right now there are mission control people who are working in real time, as it goes to Mars, and operating the systems while in flight. Then after landing, we’ll transition to surface. We’ll send commands when it lands on Mars. I’ve transitioned to a new role as flight system engineer.”

Mars 2020 took much heritage from Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), or Curiosity as it is commonly known, which is currently on Mars conducting in situ science. But a big difference between Curiosity and Perseverance is the sample caching system (SCS), which is the Perseverance subsystem White has been working on for over six years.

The objective of her and her co-team members was to prepare the rover to core and store/cache samples from Mars for future return to Earth. This will be the first step in the first Mars sample return mission ever conducted. White has focused on contamination of samples, so they will be pristine when returned to Earth. Or, as White said, “no thumb prints.”

White, who works in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has been on a whirlwind journey since she connected with NASA during her university years. Her professional presentations and research have required a lot of globetrotting. And she’s had a plethora of unique opportunities.

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As well, White has been the Lead International Space Station (ISS) Integration Engineer for OCO-3 (Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3).

White’s parents, Dana and Michael Spencer, lived in Yukon when she was born in an Oklahoma City hospital. And White spent her early childhood years in Yukon. Her mother, Dana Spencer, is an Oklahoma native, and an alum of the Yukon High Class of 1976.

“When Perseverance launched, I felt proud, and honored to be part of it,” White said. “And I felt excited for the second part of the journey, which is landing and operating on the surface of Mars.”

If you missed seeing the launch in real time on television, you may visit https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/ to watch the launch, and learn more about the mission.