Amherst MagazineSkip repeated navigation.
Amherst College  
Site Map
Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2004 > Mars in Her Eyes
Emily Lakdawalla '96
Emily Lakdawalla '96

Mars in Her Eyes

By Emily Lakdawalla '96

Emily Lakdawalla ’96 has not been to Mars, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at her vacation pictures. Lakdawalla is the science and technology coordinator for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization founded to encourage space exploration through political advocacy, public education and support of innovative technology-development projects. In 2002, she took part in a project sponsored jointly by the society and NASA on Devon Island, an Arctic Ocean site that closely approximates the terrain and climate of Mars and is used by NASA and other space agencies to prepare Martian missions.

In a project called Bio-inspired Engineering for Exploration Systems (BEES), NASA’s Ames Research Center is developing an aircraft that can explore Mars by mimicking the foraging behaviors of simple creatures like bees and ants: self-navigating and completely autonomous. The first stage in developing this aircraft is to test its navigation computer on the pseudo-Martian surface of Devon Island; Lakdawalla’s team was handling the initial part of that process. Their goal was to fly a conventional model plane fitted with a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and a tiny video camera over a crater on the island, recording gullies similar to those seen on Mars. That video would later be used to program the BEES vehicle to fly over the same area; this flight would provide training and allow other researchers to work out bugs in the craft’s software.

Lackdawalla’s team included Benton Lau, deputy project director of the Ames Center, and Paul Chambers, a senior technician at Micropilot, a company that makes miniature autopilot systems and model planes for military and scientific research.

Lakdawalla, an Amherst geology major who earned a master’s degree in planetary geology from Brown University, helped choose the Devon Island survey sites and monitored the video feed from the plane. Along the way, she posted a daily diary to the Planetary Society’s Website. Portions of her diary are reproduced here.

July 16, 2002

After a brief visit with my family (several of whom were convinced I’m headed for a polar bear encounter), I am finally on my way. Benton greeted me in the waiting area at the Chicago airport before the flight to Ottawa; he had scoped the crowd and guessed who I was by the serious back-country hiking boots I was wearing. Benton was wearing brand-spanking-new hiking boots and toting a new fleece. It made me feel a bit like an old hand at this surviving-outdoors thing.

We met the final team member, Paul Chambers, at our hotel in Ottawa. He said all his planes, fuel and equipment had been shipped ahead, so we seem to be ready for Devon Island.

Continued >>

Photo: Paul Chambers


Online Extra


Emily Lakdawalla's complete diary on the Planetary Society Website

"Mars on Earth" on the Discovery Channel Website

"Wings Over Mars:
Exploring Devon Island by Autonomous Airplane" by Emily Lakdawalla

Audio interview with Emily Lakdawalla

"BEES for Mars: Intelligent Aerial Vehicles Task Development Overview" (PDF 1.1 MB)

Amherst College Geology

  E-mail the Editor  
Search Amherst magazine