Q&A  | 

8M: Verónica Peinado, women take us to Mars

"I believe that diversity is key in all fields of research".

Tags: 'Día Internacional de la Mujer' 'Marte' 'MEDA' 'Perseverance' 'Verónica Peinado'

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Equality takes us to Mars: Digital Future Society wants to pay tribute to the great contribution of women to the field of technology through the work of Verónica Peinado, (Azuqueca de Henares, Guadalajara, 07/24/1982). The Spaniard is Chief of Operations and responsible for the flight software of MEDA, the weather station aboard the Perseverance rover that arrived on Mars on February 18.

Developed at the Spanish Astrobiology Center (CAB), associated with the NASA Astrobiology Program, MEDA will allow us to know what the atmosphere of Mars is like, "the pattern of winds, water vapor, aerosols, ... and Martian dust, which plays a very important role in the planet's atmosphere", says Peinado.

She is also part of the software and operations team for other NASA instruments on Mars: REMS aboard Curiosity or TWINS aboard Insight.

You are part of the team in charge of developing and operating MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer), the environmental station housed in the Perseverance rover that arrived at Mars on February 18. What will we be able to find out through MEDA?

MEDA will focus on studying the atmosphere of Mars, like our previous REMS and TWINS apparatus, allowing us to better understand the patterns of winds, water vapor, aerosols,… and Martian dust, which plays a very important role in the planet’s atmosphere.

For this, MEDA will measure temperature, pressure, relative humidity, IR, visible and UV radiation, the speed and direction of winds, the energy balance, it will study clouds and aerosols. All this will be of special importance to not only understand what Mars is like today and to complement further research conducted through Perseverance, but also for future manned missions.

How did you feel when Perseverance touched ground on Mars?

Well, my experience of the landing was a bit different from what I had expected: our workin shift started before Perseverance arrived on Mars, so I was working and doing it from home since I was quarantined for COVID.

But still I was able to follow my colleagues’ broadcast from the Astrobiology Center and I certainly felt emotional. And as soon as we landed, the nerves kicked in, because that’s the moment when we are really going to see if everything we have done these years works as expected and we can get to know Mars better (looks like it’s going to be that way, so we are very happy).

 

 

What kind of personal commitment does this all require?

It demands a lot of dedication. The project lasts many years, with different phases, and in each of these phases the dedication changes depending on the work group.

But, as far as operating the instruments is concerned -which is what will start now that Perseverance has arrived at Mars-, it consists on deciding and transmiting the tasks that we want the rover to perform the next day, and downloading the data of the previous day’s activities to know if everything went well or we have any restrictions.

This means that we need operators to analyze the incoming data and other operators that send those tasks to be carried out. During the first 3 months this is done every day in ‘Martian’ time, that is, the shift begins when the data arrives and that time changes from day to day, which means that the shift can start at any time of the day or the night, and can last up to 12 hours. Then it goes to earth time, but California time, which is where the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is based, so for us it is in the afternoon / evening.

And after a few more months we stop working on the weekends. This, together with the fact that the operation can take a long time -e.g. the REMS operation (aboard Curiosity) began in 2012 and we are still operating the instruments- I think gives an idea of ​​how hard it is to reconcile this work with personal life and other work obligations.

Are there many women in your field of research?

To be honest I was possitively surprised by the number of women in the missions we are involved in, both in the team leading the mission from JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) as well as in other teams and of course in our own group.

But even so, the number of women is still lower than that of men.

 

 

Following a report by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in 2019, “inventions arising from gender mixed teams have a greater reach and impact from a technological point of view”. What does your experience tell you in this regard?

I believe that diversity is key in all fields and different points of view help projects embrace a global vision, which helps to detect weaknesses and errors that could otherwise be overlooked.

And in the same way, diversity allows different ideas regarding solutions and improvements.

 

Do you think there's a need for an ethical framework in the field of space scientific research?

Of course, every working field needs an ethical framework, and even more so when we talk about exploring and reaching other planets.

It has become obvious, for example, regarding planetary protection: we must be careful with what is taken to other planets, not everything is valid because there is no one there to put limits. And this will become much more important with manned missions.

What are your thoughts about the International Women's Day?

To be honest I feel really lucky both from a personal, family and working point of view, although sometimes it is very difficult to reconcile these three aspects. What I wish for is that all women could feel the same, feel fullfiled and would not have to give anything up.