August 6th marks the anniversary of the successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory that deployed the rover Curiosity onto the surface of the red planet. Because of the thin atmosphere the design of the landing system had to rely on a combination of rockets and a parachute. The team that designed the supersonic parachute used on this mission was led by Dr. Anita Sengupta, a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Beginning her career at Boeing Space and Communications, Sengupta worked on various propulsion projects that included space craft design and testing. While completing a doctoral program in aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California, she began working at JPL as a staff engineer, testing ion engines and serving as a senior engineer and task manager for multiple projects.
In 2005 Sengupta completed her PhD and became a Senior Technical Engineer and Contract Technical Manager for the Parachute Decelerator System for the Mars Science Laboratory Mission. The next year she was named a Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Senior Systems Engineer and acted as the Principal Investigator for the Mars landing engine plume impingement ground interaction program and the supersonic parachute qualification program.
After her success with the Mars program she lead projects focused on creating a lander for exploration of Venus, a concept proposal to obtain a sample of Martian soil and return it to Earth, as well as the Orion Earth Entry Capsule.
In 2012 she was named project manager for the Cold Atom Laboratory, a facility used to study ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station. CAL uses lasers to cool matter to temperatures colder than that of space and is designed to be used remotely by scientists at JPL. This lab module is set to arrive at the space station in 2017 with a yearlong mission that could be extended.
An advocate for women and minorities in engineering, Sengupta attends career fairs at middle and high schools to serve as a role model to the next generation.
Written by Angela Goad