- Press Release
- August 10, 2022
Undergraduate on her way to JPL as Mars mission controller
University of Arizona astronomy senior Nicole Spanovich will be working on
NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission to Mars for the next four months
because she went to a lecture given by Peter H. Smith and asked him for a
Approaching a senior faculty member of Smith’s reputation can be
intimidating for an undergraduate. He’s world-famous as the UA Lunar and
Planetary scientist whose Mars Pathfinder camera sent back stunning photos
of the martian surface in 1997.
But Spanovich wanted to get hands-on experience by working on a real space
mission, and here was a chance to talk with someone directly involved. When
Smith said he was looking for students to help on Mars missions, it was just
too good a chance to pass up. She took the direct approach and asked Smith
if she could work for him.
Now she’s on her way to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena,
Calif., where she will work as a collaborator on the rover mission with
Smith and other scientists.
On Jan. 3 (Pacific Time), NASA will land a first golf-cart-sized rover on
Mars. Then on Jan. 24 (Pacific Time), NASA will land a second, duplicate
rover on the opposite side of the planet.
The rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity, will hunt for clues about past
environments that might have supported life. Each vehicle is equipped with a
color stereo camera and a robotic arm that carries a microscope, a grinding
tool with brushes to expose fresh rock surfaces, and devices that will tell
what the rocks are made of.
“When I told my family last summer that I might be going to JPL to work on
the mission, they said, ‘What? and miss classes? We don’t think so,'”
Spanovich said. “But when it became clear in July that I would be going, my
parents and grandparents got very excited. They’re interested in every
little detail now.”
In October, Spanovich went to JPL, where she trained with other rover
mission scientists in operations readiness tests. Researchers used
engineering models of rovers to practice for the real mission. JPL, a
division of California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the rover
mission for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington.
Spanovich will earn independent study and directed research credit from UA
for her work on the rover mission, and she plans to attend UA as a graduate
student in planetary sciences.
“I feel overwhelmed, but it’s going to be a really great experience,” she
Although working on a high-profile space mission is unusual for UA
undergraduates, being involved in research is not. Spanovich is one of many
undergraduates at UA who are broadening their educations with hands-on
In fact, encouraging students who show promise for graduate school is part
of what makes a major research university work, and UA scientists often have
funding to help support bright, hardworking undergraduates.