How Geologist Sanjeev Gupta Controls the Mars Rover From his Tiny London Apartment
- The British Indian geologist is part of a team of scientists working on the Mars rover team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
When geologist Sanjeev Gupta couldn’t leave London because of travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and fly to the U.S., he decided to move out of his home and rent a small apartment in South London. Since he was unable to be with the team of scientists working on the Mars rover team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, Gupta converted his rental apartment in South London, into a mini-office. With five computers and two other screens for video conferencing, the 53-year-old British Indian is operating NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance. It’s a far cry from the offices where the Perseverance rover was built, but Gupta is continuously in touch with his team, in California, who are 5,500 miles away from his location.
“I should be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, in a series of offices each one about three times bigger than this lounge, full of hundreds of scientists and engineers with their heads buried in laptops surrounded by large screens,” he told the Daily Mail. “NASA’s headquarters is certainly a far cry from a one-bedroom flat.” Gupta told the Daily Mail that he rented the apartment to ensure his wife and children are not disturbed due to his “highly demanding job.” He told the British daily that he works “round the clock” as Mars is 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth, and because his colleagues are in a different time zone. “It is like being permanently jet-lagged.”
A professor of Earth Science at Imperial College’s Department of Earth Science & Engineering, Gupta works with the engineers in rover operations to search for samples of rocks for a future return to Earth. He will also study the Martian rocks and sentiment samples to find answers regarding the Red planet’s geology and climate.
In his profile on the Imperial College website, Gupta describes himself as an earth and planetary scientist with broad research interests in understanding modern and ancient environmental change on Earth’s surface and on Mars. Gupta joined NASA’s Mars program a few years ago and had been a planner on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission for studying the Gale crater. He is a co-investigator on the Mastcam camera team on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission in Gale crater, Mars; a co-investigator on the Pancam camera team on the ExoMars 2020 rover mission; and a collaborator on the Mastcam-Z camera team on the NASA Mars 2020 rover mission.
The Perseverance rover touched down on Mars on Feb. 18 and is expected to return in the 2030s. Talking about the historic event, Gupta told the Daily Mail that the Jezero Crater, where the rover landed, “is really good spot, I think, because it is an ancient lake formed by a meteorite impact billions of years ago.”
The rover weighing 2,299 lbs, will search and collect clues from Jezero crater, an ancient lake bed that may give any signs of past microbial life, Gupta told the paper. Once back on Earth, he will study the Martian rocks and sentiment samples to find answers regarding the Red planet’s geology and climate which could eventually pave the way for humans to further explore the planet.
“It is crucial to understand what the Martian climate was like early in Mars’ history and whether it was habitable for life,” he told the Daily Mail. “Analysis of data from instruments onboard Perseverance will help us define the best spots to collect rock samples for future return to Earth. Lakes are fantastic at fostering and preserving life, so if there is any to be found then it could well be in the Jezero crater,” he said. “Laboratory analyzes of such samples on Earth will enable us to search for morphological and chemical signatures of ancient life on Mars and also answer key questions about Mars’ geological evolution.” Gupta and the team in California have daily meetings and “talk about what experiments we will want it to do, where to collect the samples from,” he told the Daily Mail.
“We are looking to where to direct it to exciting-looking rock formations, and the way it will get there.”However, working remotely has its challenges, Gupta told the newspaper. “Our working patterns are all over the place,” he said. “It takes 11 minutes for the signals to get back from Mars, because it’s around 150 million miles away.,” he said. However, he counts his blessings. “Still, it’s a lovely little flat, even if it isn’t the typical image of one of the nerve centers of space exploration.”
Love for Traveling and Problem Solving
In a June 6, 2014 interview with the Royal Society’s “Inspiring Scientists” series, Gupta talks about his interest in geology, his research and work including NASA’s Mars Mission. The interview was part of a series by Royal Society to celebrate the diversity of British science in partnership with National Life Stories at the British Library.
“I am a geologist and I am interested in what shapes the landscape and reconstructing past landscapes and going back in geological time and seeing how the earth actually evolved,” he says in his introduction in the video. “And I work in places like the Himalaya, under the sea in the English Channel and now, on Mars.”
Gupta was born in Agra, India, and came to Britain when he was 5. His father, who was a research scientist, then came over to Britain to teach biology, initially in Kent, and then in Reading. “My father being a teacher, my parents were always interested in education,” he says in the interview. “But they wanted me to have a career in something like medicine, something that had a clear career structure and led to a clear job,” he adds. “Unfortunately for them and fortunately for me, I wasn’t really interested in medicine or engineering,” he continues, and adds: “I think I didn’t want to work in an office or in a laboratory or something like that and I was really interested in the outdoors, and so I got interested in geology and wanted to become a geologist, which was a pretty eccentric choice for them.”
Gupta became interested in geology because of his love for traveling. “I was really interested in travel and as a child I read all these books about explorers traveling around the world and that’s what I wanted to do,” he says. So late in his teens, he started traveling around the world. Just before joining university, Gupta went to the Himalayas. In Ladakh, “which is this bizarre, strange landscape,” he trekked and “saw weird rock formations and just got completely hooked.”
Gupta completed his PhD from Oxford University’s St. Cross College. His thesis was on the formation of the Alps looking and rocks. “I would spend every summer working out in the French Alps for three months every year, which was just fantastic.”
Another reason was his interest in problem solving. “I like to solve problems,” he says. “So doing scientific research is really wonderful because you can actually choose the problems you want to solve.”
Besides the Mars mission, Gupta has been instrumental in developing and writing about the evolution of varied terrains including the Himalayas, Black forest and the mapping of the seafloor in the English Channel using sonar.
Along with Dr. Jenny Collier, professor of Marine Geophysics at Imperial College, Gupta started exploring what the landscapes were like under the English Channel. “We produced the first map of the landscape under the sea using sonar bathymetry data,” he says. This led to the discovery that catastrophic mega floods separated Britain from Europe, and explained how Britain became an island.
This“extraordinary revelation” led him to work on Mars, “quite bizarrely, because the landscapes under the English Channel are quite similar to the flood landscapes on Mars. And that’s when Gupta went to “another surprise leap,” where he ended up working on selecting landing sites for future Rovers on Mars. “I got selected to be on the science team of the Curiosity Rover – that’s NASA’s current rover on Mars and here I work as a longtime science planner working out how the team is going to plan its science experiments on the surface of Mars.”
Gupta is proud to be of Indian origin, he says in the video, but never likes to be defined by his ethnicity. However, he wants people from underprivileged ethnic backgrounds like his, to know that they can enter science and have “a successful and exciting career in science.”
Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.