When NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on the surface of Mars on Thursday after a seven-month journey, a Taiwan-born engineer was preparing to guide its first movements on the Red Planet.
Yen Cheng (嚴正), a 61-year-old graduate of National Tsing Hua University and a 20-year veteran at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is taking part in his fourth Mars exploration mission with the agency’s Robot Interfaces and Visualization team, this time as its leader.
Yen in a media interview described his expectations for the next few months as “living on Earth in Mars time.”
As nighttime temperatures on Mars can drop to minus-80°C, the rover must spend those periods heating itself, while conducting research during the day, he said.
Yen and his team would use the downtime to prepare the code that would guide the rover’s movements the next day, he said.
However, as a Martian day is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, the time difference results in a shifting work schedule.
“Today my shift started at 2pm. Next week it will start at 10pm,” Yen said.
He said that piloting the 1-tonne rover is nothing like driving a remote-controlled vehicle, despite expectations to the contrary.
As there is no GPS on Mars, Yen and his team had to design custom navigation software for the rover, using technologies such as 3D visualization and virtual and augmented reality.
These efforts, multiplied across other teams contributing to the mission, mean that every meter the rover covers on Mars is the product of “decades of work by countless people,” he said.
One of the main missions of the Perseverance rover is to search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet.
Asked if NASA has guidelines on what to do if the rover encounters alien life, Yen said it did not, but joked that his first instinct would be to take a picture.
However, NASA followed strict procedures to prevent Earth organisms from hitching a ride to Mars, due to their potential to corrupt scientific research and result in a false discovery of life on the Red Planet.
Asked how long it would take before a human mission could reach Mars, Yen said he believes that children born this year could see it during their lifetime, adding that the technology needed to launch a human mission to Mars already exists.
It is just a matter of investing the money, which would be “hundreds of times” more than the US$2.7 billion price tag for the Perseverance mission, he added.
While the goal remains distant, Yen said he was amazed by the progress that has been achieved during his own time at NASA, including the discovery that liquid water once existed on Mars and now searching for evidence of life on the Red Planet.
Yen advised young Taiwanese interested in astronautics not to be afraid to pursue their dreams, citing his own mid-career decision to leave a professorship for an opportunity at NASA.
The Council of Agriculture yesterday signed a Taiwan-Australia Agricultural Cooperation Implementation clause to open a new export market for the nation’s pineapple crop. The clause is an addition to existing cooperation measures, it said. China on Friday last week abruptly announced that it would suspend pineapple imports from Taiwan starting on Monday, on grounds that it had on multiple occasions discovered “harmful organisms” in shipments of the fruit. The public and private sectors have since joined hands to purchase the local fruit to help the nation’s pineapple farmers. Canberra has requested that all pineapples for export to Australia have their crown buds removed,
POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: As China attempted to promote its national image through humanitarian aid, its targets include New Southbound Policy countries, an expert said China’s “vaccine diplomacy,” which has become central to its foreign policy this year, might hamper Taiwan’s efforts to build relations with developing countries, an expert said. “China, as one of the few countries other than the United Kingdom and the United States to have produced a COVID-19 vaccine, will certainly use that as a diplomatic tool,” said Kung Shan-son (龔祥生), an assistant research fellow at the government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research. Beijing’s major goals in its “vaccine diplomacy” are to promote its national image through humanitarian aid and to solidify its relations with countries that are included in its
A Tainan taxi driver is the Taiwanese with the longest name, after he last month changed it so that it now contains 25 characters, the Anping District Household Registration Office said. The 47-year-old man, formerly known as Huang Hsin-hsiang (黃鑫翔), applied for the name change on Feb. 26, in the hope that it would bring him good luck. His new name starts with Huang Da-lan (黃大嵐) and adds another 22 characters, meaning “Huang Da-lan is the blessed darling and sweetheart of the god of joy, god of wealth, god of misfortune, god of Earth and all the gods,” it said. With
Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group might have lost its right to distribute the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 and the ability to fulfill a contract in Taiwan, civic groups Taiwan Citizen Front and the Economic Democracy Union said yesterday. In a radio interview on Feb. 17, Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), head of the Central Epidemic Command Center, said that last year, Taiwan was close to signing a contract to buy doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but that the deal was halted at the last moment, with some speculating that Chinese interference was to blame. On Monday last week, the center