Out Of This World: CHS Grad Explores Surface Of Mars

Out Of This World: CHS Grad Explores Surface Of Mars

Back on Feb. 18 of this year, Cheshire native Katie Stack Morgan carried a mix of excitement and nerves to work. As the Deputy Project Scientist for the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover, she had waited four years to see a capsule reach the planet, but to land, it had to survive going through the atmosphere in a process that the science community calls ‘seven minutes of terror.’

Nine years ago, Morgan had seen the process completed successfully with the Mars Curiosity Rover, but knew that the trek is always a stressful ordeal.

“It (the rover) is lowered down on a sky crane, which is a series of cables. When it lands, the rover breaks out of the capsule,” explained Morgan. “It is a pretty intense process, but we’ve pulled it off twice now.”

Since there is a delay between Martian time and Earth, Morgan didn’t get to see the landing live, but she enjoyed watching the video afterwards.

“We were getting updates on the process from a space ship,” recalled Morgan. “It sent back these amazing images of the capsule landing. It was the first time that we had filmed footage of it.”

Over the last eight months at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, the 2004 Cheshire High School graduate has been working to investigate terrain. For research, Morgan focuses on tracking the history of Martian sedimentary rocks and studying the evolution of ancient surfaces.

“It (Mars) was once very earth-like. It had liquid water and was capable of having ancient life, but it is now desolate,” stated Morgan. “It is hard to find ancient rocks on Earth because of plate tectonics, but you can find that on Mars. It is something that we couldn’t study on our planet.”

Perseverance is the first leg of an effort to bring back samples to Earth. The rover has 43 tubes, 38 being for soil.

So far, four tubes have been sealed up.

“We want to collect rock and soil samples that will revolutionize how we look at the solar system and life on Mars,” stated Morgan.

Morgan said that she is always building geologic models in her head.

“I think it’s cool that we can look at rocks and see how they behave,” explained Morgan. “We are just doing it on a different planet.”

After space flight, Morgan and team started out checking the Perseverance instruments.

“A helicopter moved along with the rover,” stated Morgan. “It has done 13 flights, which is really neat.”

After three months, the rover received approval to move around. It is now working on a geologic crater.

“We have taken images before, but had never explored it,” recalled Morgan. “It’s fun for me to have thought about this landing site for so long and to now see the rocks up close.”

Scientists look at orbital data in planning courses.

“You pull out the map and decide where you want to go and what you want to see along the way,” explained Morgan. “We have this strategic plan in mind, given how many big boulders there are and how long it will take to get there.”

With a large team of 500 scientists and a couple hundred more engineers, Morgan feels that is important to work together.

“The engineers want to go on the flat road because it is safer, while the scientists want to go over the big rocks because they want to see them up close,” said Morgan.

To help with movement, Morgan is pleased to have a new auto navigation feature.

“We can tell the rover where to go and it assesses the terrain,” stated Morgan. "The rover can move up to 100 to 200 meters a day.”

For Morgan, one of the most exciting things is looking at new pictures.

*I’m the first person to see the images that have never been shown before and that is pretty cool,” stated Morgan. “We do release them pretty quick, so if people know the right (web) sites, they can view them, too.”

While not envisioning working with rovers as a child, Morgan has always been interested in astronomy.

“My parents saw that interest and were supportive of it,” recalled Morgan. “They took me to planetary shows and got me a telescope.”

After graduating from CHS in 2004, Morgan went on to earn her degree in Geosciences and Astronomy at Williams College in Massachusetts. She recalls how a planetary geology class opened her eyes to how much people can learn about the world.

“I’ve always liked history and thinking back in time,” explained Morgan. “I’m amazed by the fact that we can study something in front of us and construct an amazing history of our planet and other planets.”

For graduate school, Morgan traveled out west to study geology at the California Institute of Technology.

“In my first couple of years, I was a little bit lost,” reflected Morgan. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in science, so I put out feelers for more opportunities.”

In what she sees as a life-changing experience, she was given the chance to be a graduate assistant at JPL and work on the Mars Rover Curiosity project.

“It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. I got to know the people who work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” recalled Morgan. “I was lucky that Curiosity landed when it did. I had this moment when it (my interests) all clicked.”

For her first day, she remembers not understanding what any of her colleagues were saying.

“Over time, you learn to speak engineering and discover what the rover does,” stated Morgan.

While continuing to study at school, Morgan worked her way up to become a member of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Team in 2012.

“I started at the bottom of the totem pole like taking notes every day because you want to know why you did certain things with the rover,” stated Morgan. “As a grad assistant, I realized that I had something to provide scientifically and could participate more in the process.”

At JPL, she had an opportunity to lead an investigative team that decided where the Curiosity Rover would move for a span of six months. Through research, the team found that the planet had the chemistry to support microbe life.

“Scientists and engineers work differently. It was good to learn how to speak engineering such as the lingo and explain that to my fellow scientists,” explained Morgan. “I enjoyed the interaction with other scientists and also being able to explore another planet. I thought to myself that I had found my calling.”

Morgan believes that her work with the Curiosity Rover led to her joining the Perseverance team. After getting her Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees at California Institute of Technology, she became the Deputy Project Scientist for the next rover in 2017.

In contrast to the Curiosity program, Morgan started working in the development stages for the Perseverance Rover.

“It is an interesting experience,” reflected Morgan. “I didn’t see the rover get built from scratch the first time. I think I took for granted that, of course, the rover works.”

For delivery, the rover is packed in a capsule, attached to the top of a rocket, and then blasted into space. During a six-to-eight-month trek to Mars, the capsule separates from the rocket.

Morgan appreciates all the steps that went into the Perseverance Rover reaching its destination. The capsule was launched on July 30, 2020, but the design project started a decade ago.

“You see the hard work and the blood, sweat, and tears,” stated Morgan. “At times, you don’t think that it is going to get pulled off, but now it is all working the way you want it to work.”

Since a day on Mars lasts approximately 40 minutes longer than on Earth, Morgan has an unusual work schedule.

“We (the scientists) are waking up in the middle of the night when a lot of people on Earth are sleeping,” said Morgan. “When I did Martian time for Curiosity, I was living alone with my dog, but now I have a family with two kids and a husband. It has become more of a challenge, but I have made it work.”

With the world dealing with the pandemic over the last two years, Morgan feels that Perseverance was an apt name for the rover.

“I think that many people felt that the mission meant a lot because of what we were going through on our planet,” said Morgan.

As the next step in the process, Morgan said there may be a fetch rover sent to Mars to collect rocks and return them to Earth.

“The earliest that it could happen would be the 2030s,” added Morgan.

In her field, Morgan has received honors as the NASA Software of the Year Award in 2018. Back in 2013, she was also named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in Science and Healthcare.

“I feel fortunate to be doing this (work) so early in my career,” said Morgan.

While building her professional career in California, she has liked being able to still connect with people from her hometown. Right before the Perseverance Rover landed this year, CHS teacher Julie Barker asked Morgan to call in and talk about the mission with students in the Science National Honor Society.

“It was exciting to share the rover with them,” Morgan reflected.

She has also spoken about her work with a Girl Scouts troop in Cheshire.

“It is good to talk to young girls and show them that this kind of science career is within their reach,” stated Morgan.

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