Exploring the 'Red Planet'

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THE YOUNGEST PERSON working on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) team, Fredericksburg’s Rebekah (Bekah) Sosland said working on the “Opportunity” squad is the same as being in a family and tackling issues together. The team’s success in finding ways to extend the life of the rover is one of the reasons it is still operational, she said. “Sure, she has some arthritis and some parts of her simply don’t work anymore, but she is still finding incredible discoveries every day! We are getting closer and closer to proving that life is out there in our universe and I believe we will find it in my lifetime.”

Mars Exploration Rover team member Rebekah Sosland was an eighth grade student in Fredericksburg when NASA’s exploration rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” landed on Mars in January 2004.

Teens didn’t have Facebook or Twitter to share news back then. Bekah, 14 years old at the time, learned about it on the next morning on her school’s Channel One video news.

“I wasn’t particularly interested in space at the time,” she said last week from inside NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., where she now works.

“I remember I was talking with friends, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed this thing bouncing and rolling on a red surface. I watched as it stopped and opened up, and it had this rover inside,” she said.

That animation portrayed how NASA landed the Mars rovers three weeks apart, using airbags to cushion the impact at the start of the missions, which were expected to take three months.

Spirit reached Mars on Jan. 4, 2004, and worked for six years. Opportunity landed on Jan. 25, 2004, and is still exploring.

Sosland is now a part of the team that plans what Opportunity will do each day.

 

From student to scientist

“I watched that news and said, ‘This is amazing: a rover on another planet!’ Gears started turning in my head that day about engineering and space — thinking about a career,” she said. “It was definitely a milestone in my life and something I’ll always remember.”

On her path to that career, Fredericksburg High School (FHS) Principles of Technology teacher Brett Williams inspired her to design and build rockets. That innovative program continues today and has not only created unique opportunities for local students, but has spread to other high school curriculums through SystemsGo.

After FHS, Sosland earned an engineering degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2013, having pioneered a women’s aerospace engineering organization for fellow college students.

“I certainly never thought I’d have an opportunity to work on Opportunity. That only became possible because this mission has been going so incredibly long,” she said, adding that no one ever predicted Opportunity’s longevity.

“The reason Opportunity has worked so long is the people who built it and operate it. I’m loving that I can be a part of this team now,” Sosland said.

For more on this story, read this week’s print and online editions of the Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post. If you are a print subscriber, your full online subscription is free. All you need to do is call 830-997-2155 to get a password. If you are not a subscriber, call 997-2155 or click on the ‘Subscribe’ button on the left side of the home page and sign up today!

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