New JPL director aims to make way for new sounds, and find extraterrestrial life

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena jumped for joy in 2012 after directing Curiosity for a safe landing on Mars. Astronomer and geochemist Lori Lichen, who helped develop two of the rover’s instruments, watched the landing that day and remember feeling equal parts excitement and nervousness.

“It’s like you have a baby who was born on Mars, you have to go and make sure the baby is healthy and take care of him and make sure he’s okay,” Leshin recalls. “So immediately after jumping up and down for a few minutes, [we] He went to work “.

A decade of work and another craft after that, Mars is still on JPL’s radar, as are many other NASA missions. These days, Leshin has been tasked with overseeing all of it, as the organization’s newly appointed director.

Leshin says the organization won’t stop its work soon on Mars, where it has had a presence for more than a quarter century. Curiosity still traverses the planet’s red soil, and Perseverance — another rover that Lichen worked on the size of a Mini Cooper — landed on the planet last February during the pandemic.

JPL’s new director Laurie Leshin next to a model of the Persevering Rover currently exploring Mars. Photography by Zidi Sanchez for KCRW.

Currently, Perseverance is exploring an ancient river delta where water flowed billions of years ago. The rock samples you collect from that trip could lead scientists closer to one of humanity’s fundamental questions: Are we alone in the universe?

“We think the rocks that form when water flows outward could be great for picking up evidence of ancient life on Mars,” Lichin told KCRW’s Steve Chewtakes during a tour of the facility. “And that’s what we’re looking for.”

NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are now working on a return flight from Mars that will bring some of those rocks back to Earth. While spacecraft on Mars have been collecting samples for years, they haven’t returned anything for scientists to study.

“You go back to Apollo when humans went to the moon and brought back thousands of pounds of moon rocks,” Lichin recounts. “We don’t have any of that from Mars. This is our chance. We are standing on the edge of that amazing moment when we’re going to turn things back on.”

However, the surface of Mars isn’t the only limit in JPL’s future. In two years, NASA will launch The Europa Clipper, which is covered in sensors and features solar panels as high as the Statue of Liberty. Clipper will explore Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

“It’s going to go into orbit where it can do many, many more flybys of this wonderful icy world, which we think has an ocean under the icy crust,” says Lichen.

A new spacecraft, Europa Clipper, is being completed in an elevated bay at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It is scheduled to launch in 2024 and will orbit Jupiter to study its moon Europa. Scientists believe that the icy ocean lies beneath the icy surface of Europa. “Where there is liquid water, there is life,” says NASA Administrator Laurie Lichen. Photography by Zidi Sanchez for KCRW.

Exploring distant worlds of space isn’t the only thing Leshin hopes to achieve in her new job. As the first female director in the organization’s 85-year history, she wants to help make room for people of all backgrounds to enter NASA’s historically male and white-dominated world.

“We have to look at the systems that we have… and really understand: Are the systems that we have supporting all the minds, all the brilliant people… working to contribute to our mission? Or are there some changes we need to make to make sure everyone has the opportunity? To do the best job here?” she says.

Covered in scrubs, NASA scientists are building a new satellite to orbit Earth. The Surface Water and Ocean Satellite (SWOT) satellite will measure surface waters in an effort to provide information about how the Earth’s climate is changing. The launch is scheduled for November. Photography by Zidi Sanchez for KCRW.

She is also excited about using JPL’s tools to tackle issues closer to home – the climate crisis. Its teams are developing tools that help measure surface water levels from space and understand how atmospheric dust causes temperature changes.

“Dust in the atmosphere is one of the things that we don’t understand as much as a driver of climate change. It can warm the atmosphere, or it can cool the atmosphere, and so we have to understand that better,” she says.

NASA-ISRO’s Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) is designed to collect data while orbiting the Earth to help scientists better understand the changing climate. Photography by Zidi Sanchez for KCRW.

These projects, as well as the many tasks you’ll be overseeing, are sure to keep her busy. This may not be a bad thing, Leshin says.

“We are very busy, which is a very good thing. It means that the United States continues to explore the unknown.”

Pulse interacts with live communications between more than 30 interplanetary spacecraft and the Deep Space Network. Photography by Zidi Sanchez for KCRW.

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