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Alumna Part of Mars 2020 Perseverance Team

Dragana Perkovic-Martin

Dragana Perkovic-Martin

remains of an ancient delta in Mars' Jezero Crater

Mars' Jezero Crater, which NASA's Perseverance Mars rover will explore for signs of fossilized microbial life. [Credit: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin]

Congratulations to UMass alumna Dragana Perkovic-Martin for the successful operation of the descent radar for the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover that NASA just landed on the Red Planet. Perkovic-Martin led the system engineering team for the mission's landing radar as the descent stage safely navigated the rover into a soft landing within the Jezero Crater on the Martian surface. See Perkovic-Martin’s Mars 2020 mission profile here.

Perkovic-Martin graduated with her Ph.D. from the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department in 2008 after researching in The Microwave Remote Sensing Laboratory (MIRSL) and has worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) since then. 

As Forbes reported about the spectacular Mars landing on February 19, “Perseverance is the most advanced rover NASA has ever built, and it’s loaded with over 20 HD cameras, as well as a few microphones to capture its entire journey, beginning with last week’s terrifying descent through the Martian atmosphere.”

Meanwhile CNet gave this background: “Perseverance launched on July 30, 2020, beneath the early morning sun of the Florida coast aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V. It spent the last seven months traveling from Earth to Mars, shielded from the harsh environment of space within the Mars 2020 spacecraft,” which is affectionately called “Percy.” 

Perkovic-Martin was an integral part of this mission from its beginning owing to her long and distinguished career at the JPL.

“I started working at JPL in the Radar Science and Engineering Section in 2008 following a short postdoc stint at UMass Amherst after completing my degree,” as Perkovic-Martin explained in her mission profile. “This is the first real job that I have held, and I still find it just as exciting as in the first few months. JPL offers a diversity of work that I can hardly find anywhere else.”

According to Perkovic-Martin’s profile, she has been providing radar leadership at the JPL for many projects prior to the Perseverance mission to Mars. As a radar system engineer, she explained, her role is to try and translate what the scientists are interested in measuring into a radar instrument that can help measure that quantity.

“Typically,” Perkovic-Martin said, “I lead teams of two-to-10 system engineers who follow an instrument from its inception through implementation and into the operation, whether airborne or spaceborne.”

Beyond the Mars landing currently making international headlines, Perkovic-Martin’s vast responsibilities at JPL span recent space missions and others to be launched: ISS-RapidScat; Surface Water and Ocean Topography or SWOT; and NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar or NISAR. She has also worked on radar for a number of airborne instruments, including DopplerScatt and AiSWOT, as well as formulation of new missions such as Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, and Topography & Spectroscopy or VERITAS.

According to Perkovic-Martin, “I am also serving as a technical group supervisor to 16 radar system engineers who are supporting most of the JPL’s radar missions. As a group supervisor, I advise, mentor, and learn from my group members.”

An article about Perkovic-Martin posted on the College of Engineering website in 2017, at a time when she was already working on the descent radar for the Mars 2020 Rover, provided some deep background on her past.

As the article noted, Perkovic-Martin has made a protracted odyssey from her birthplace in Serbia to become a key radar systems engineer at the JPL, a journey that included her formative studies in electrical engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Malta and as a doctoral student at the UMass ECE department, where she worked at MIRSL.

As Perkovic-Martin said in the College of Engineering story, “To do system engineering, you have to know at least a little about a lot of very different things. My graduate school gave me good training for that. We built radars, put them together, took them out to the field, processed data. JPL to me feels just like that graduate school experience – just on a very large scale.”

That “very large scale” now includes the distance from here to the surface of Planet Mars and is ever expanding toward Venus and beyond. (February 2021)