Now she serves as Payload Downlink Coordinator on the Mars instrument
“As Payload Downlink Coordinator, I’m responsible for the sol’s (solar day on
Mars) operations of the entire set of instruments on any given Martian day, “
Hernández explains. “We get the data back from the rover and then I work with the
instruments team to make sure the instruments are safe, have completed their
science and are ready for the next sol.”
She serves as PIXL’s team lead for surface commissioning activities on Mars.
Hernández, a Los Angeles native, works at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
where she defined the space environment for JPL’s flight projects and ensured
spacecraft were safe from orbital debris, micrometeoroids and radiation.
She is as passionate about moving the aerospace industry toward progress
as she is about science itself. She wants her industry to be more inclusive,
transparent and diverse --- and to raise awareness of non-traditional pathways
“I found it super interesting that as an engineer, one is able to be a part
of answering fundamental questions of our universe,” O’Farrell says. “I heard
the team’s stories and wanted to work with them. In particular fellow
Argentine engineer Miguel San Martín. I thought if one of us can do it, maybe
two of us can do it.”
Today, she is an Entry, Descent and Landing Engineer for entry to the Red
Planet. At JPL, Dr. O’Farrell specializes in the aerodynamics of landing on other
worlds. Some of her most notable work includes developing and testing the
supersonic parachute for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and developing
a new parachute for the upcoming Mars Sample Return missions.
The parachute travels almost at twice the speed of sound because
the atmosphere on Mars is so much less dense than on Earth. The team
Dr. O’Farrell worked with developed the parachute, which was more
than 70 feet in diameter, and the largest one ever used. The team completed
three successful tests, including carrying the highest load ever survived by
supersonic parachutes, only to break its own record five months later.
“The principal question we’re attempting to answer is was there ever
microbial life on Mars,” Dr. O’Farrell explains. These are fundamental questions
for us as humans and what we find can affect how we look at the Red Planet.
Every time we find something, it affects what instruments we’re going to take
and what we’re going to be looking for.”
Aerospace Engineer, Mars Rover
Christina Hernández became engrossed in space exploration at seven years
old, whilst flipping through the pages of a large coffee table book with
NASA images. She came across a beautiful high-resolution image of
Saturn and its rings and was enthralled.
“It blew my mind,” Hernández says. “It was really through books that I fell in
love with the beauty of space and chaotic things like black holes, giant gas
planets and nuclear asteroids.”
She dreamt of the impossible and found in Dr. Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina to
go to space and lead the Johnson Space Center, her own Sally Ride-like role model.
Today she is a NASA Aerospace Engineer working on the Mars
She served as one of the payload systems engineers responsible for
designing, building and testing three of the seven scientific instruments on
Mars Rover. These include the MEDA (weather station), RIMFAX (radar) and
Hernández guided the team to the delivery of 13 pieces of instrument
hardware and three instrument software packages on the rover.
Planetary Protection Engineer
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Sarah Yearicks embraces the power of hard work and determination.
That’s because she was raised by a single mother and Peruvian-Mexican
grandparents in the San Fernando Valley of California. Her grandfather
recognized the promise of a college degree and its ability to help Yearicks gain
That work ethic is what landed her the Caltech SURF Internship with the
Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group at the NASA Jet Propulsion
Laboratory and her eventual hiring as Planetary Protection Engineer at JPL.
As Planetary Protection Engineer, Yearicks helped maintain and assess
the biological cleanliness of the Mars Perseverance Rover, the Mars InSight
Lander, and currently, the Europa Clipper mission. Planetary Protection aims to
protect solar system bodies from contamination by Earth-life, and likewise, to
protect Earth from possible life forms (if they exist) that may be returned from
other solar system bodies.
Yearicks describes Planetary Protection as a scientific discipline that
merges solar system exploration with microbiology; a perfect marriage of her
“There are approximately 5 million trillion bacteria on Earth. The goal of
planetary protection is to ensure that we limit contamination to other sites in
the solar system from Earth-microbes,” Yearicks explains. “So, spacecraft are
assembled in cleanroom facilities, frequently wiped clean, and meticulously
sampled before launch.”
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