I spent this summer doing rocket science. Well not exactly, but I did get to work on a Mars Rover, work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and interface with NASA, JPL, and CNRS of France.
How I got my internship: Around March of this year, I started to panic as my plans for the summer started to unravel and I thought I wouldn’t have anything to do over the summer. I reached out to my mentor from the previous summer and asked him if he had any ideas of things I could do and he gave me the email of a Roger Wiens in the Intelligence and Space Research group of Los Alamos National Laboratory. It turns out that Roger is the Head of the ChemCam instrument team on Curiosity, the new Mars Science Laboratory that just landed on Mars in August. I emailed him directly. He told me he was very busy, but that they were behind on their spectral database and that I could do some data analysis algorithms. I had no idea what that meant, but I told Roger that I was in.
What I actually did: I got to work on three different assignments while I was there, but they all had to do with the ChemCam instrument on Curiosity. ChemCam is an instrument that allows NASA to do spectroscopy on Mars incredibly quickly and easily. It shoots a high power laser at a target up to 7 meters away and vaporizes it. As the target cools, it gives off electromagnetic radiation that it collects with a telescope and feeds into a spectrometer to tell what it is looking at. The problem is that you need to know what to look for in the light spectrums and since no one has ever done this on Mars, we had to create our own database. The government had sent a $2.5 billion dollar robot into space without actually finishing the work required to use it so I got to work with a programmer and a post Doc to create and fill the database. You can guess who got the menial work. Once that was done, I got to do statistical analysis on the data files that had been produced for the database and see what values probably weren’t useful (shout out to Statistics 431, I actually used something I learned in school!). The coolest part of the internship came later when they gave me a budget of a few thousand dollars, and told me to make educational displays about the ChemCam. I got to freely interface with people from Paris, NASA, and Jet Propulsion Laboratories to get solid model files of Curiosity and its parts. Then I got to talk to the various people involved in designing the ChemCam. I got a tour of the clean room where parts of the rover were assembled, and even got to keep a spare part of the rover, which I currently keep in my dorm room. Then came deliverables. I ordered the production of an animated video of the instrument in action from the laboratories in house animation team which consisted of a number of ex-Pixar employees and I interfaced between them and the various science communities that they needed input from. I also got to apply my Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanices (MEAM) 101 skills to use Pro/E and Solidworks to mess around with and prepare the solid models of the instrument for 3D printing. When it came time to actually print the parts, I was transported “behind the fence” to Los Alamos National Laboratory’s rapid prototyping center where I was given access to printers that can print literally any shape imaginable in full color and 3D with 10 micrometer resolution.
The cool perks: Some of the coolest parts of my internship weren’t the work itself, but the things I was exposed to. Since the facility where I did the printing of my parts is used for the rapid prototyping of nuclear core designs, you need a Q clearance (one level above top secret) and approval to be allowed on the premises. So when I went, they put me in a bright red vest that said “UNCLEARED” all over it, turned on a bunch of flashing blue lights everywhere, made an announcement on the PA, and gave me an escort. I felt special to say the least. I also got the opportunity to take a number of tours and attend talks while working there. I got the opportunity to see a neutron particle accelerator, the most powerful generator in North America, the strongest electromagnet in the world, and the first super-computer to break the petaflop speed barrier (one thousand trillion Hz). I also had the opportunity to see talks by experts on the Fukushima Nuclear disaster, nuclear design, the future of superconducting technology, and Political analysts who try to predict global instability for the CIA.
Overall, my experience there was an incredible one. I would definitely recommend looking to Los Alamos for summer internships. There is something there for all forms of engineering and it’s not too hard to get a paid spot, especially for college freshmen and sophomores who don’t have as many options!
Bahram is a current M&T sophomore in the Class of 2015. He is majoring in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics within Penn Engineering and has yet to declare his concentration in the Wharton School.