Marleen Sundgaard has one of coolest jobs in the world

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Jet Propulsion Laboratory/courtesy photo Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer and Warden native Marleen (Martinez) Sundgaard, left, works to recreate the Martian surface as part of her work on JPL’s InSight project.

PASADENA — Marleen (Martinez) Sundgaard said she got a little emotional the first time she walked on Mars.

Well, OK, of course it wasn’t really Mars — it was a site set up at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory using data from the InSight project to mimic the exact conditions on Mars, augmented with a virtual reality program. But it seemed pretty real, real enough that it got kind of dusty in there.

The first time she put on the VR glasses, “I cried a little,” she said. But of course the team was working, analyzing data from the InSight lander on Mars, so there was no time. “But on my way home I kind of lost it.” Sundgaard is the lead for the testbed team, whose job is to simulate the conditions around the lander and test each maneuver before InSight tries it.

Driving home that night, Sundgaard said she thought about what the team had accomplished. “I can’t believe that I built Mars on Earth today.”

It was a big deal to the girl from Warden who wanted to be — and still wants to be — an astronaut. “My 13-year-old self was just thrilled.”

Leading the testbed team just might be one of the coolest jobs in the world. The InSight lander touched down on Mars Nov. 26. “From what I’ve seen in the pictures, Mars is very dusty,” she said. “It’s that brownish-red color you see in all the pictures.”

InSight’s job is to explore the planet’s geography, and Sundgaard’s team is working to reduce the possibility of accidents when the lander does what it’s told to do.

The lander is gathering data that will give some clues to the formation of Mars and, by extension, other planets like it — like Earth, for instance. InSight carries a seismometer to measure ground movement, one so sensitive it can detect the movement of hydrogen atoms. It’s been placed on the surface, but its sensitivity requires a shield to ensure the results aren’t influenced by surface conditions. That’s the next task for the lander. There’s a heat sensor, but one that does more than that. “It’s a mole,” Sundgaard said, which will hammer its way about 16 feet below the Martian surface.

The third instrument is a communications array that allows scientists to pinpoint the lander’s location. “We use this to follow the lander around Mars,” Sundgaard said, as it travels around the sun. Mars wobbles as it rotates, she said, and “we’re trying to measure the wobble of Mars.”

But the instruments have to be deployed, and there’s a lot that can go wrong when the lander is on its own. The lander could hit a rock and tipped over. One of those extremely sensitive instruments could get dropped. The instruments are tethered to the lander, and those can get tangled. And it’s not like there’s anybody nearby to correct the mistake.

So Sundgaard’s team must recreate the Martian surface around the lander, right down to any little rocks scattered around. “We were basically on our hands and knees,” sculpting the surface by hand. “Every single little lump.”

The mission team built a second lander which is used in the test bed, dubbed “the Sandbox. But it’s not sand, it’s crushed garnet.” Garnets are the best approximation of the Martian surface, and they don’t create dust, she said.

Sundgaard said a career in astronomy and space was always on her mind. “I remember telling my mom I wanted to be an astronaut.” She considered other things, she said, but “I always went back to that.”

She was selected to attend the Space Academy in Huntsville, Ala., when she was in middle school, she said, and it was a defining experience. She took all the math and science courses available at Warden High School.

A sister and an uncle are Gonzaga University alumni, she said, and that was her first choice. But the University of Washington offered a full-ride scholarship through a grant funded through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, so she went to UW.

The math and science were a challenge the first couple of quarters, she said, but she was determined to succeed. College introductory classes would get smaller and smaller as students dropped out, and “I knew I couldn’t be one of those students.” So she persevered. “I just needed to keep going, and I did.”

She graduated with a degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, and worked in the aerospace industry throughout her career. And while her job is cool, she’s still looking for that astronaut’s job. “It’s still my goal to this day,” she said.

She’s applied to join the astronaut program three times, and been turned down three times. Applications open again in 2020, she said, and she’s going to keep trying.

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at education@olumbiabasinherald.com.

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