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Class Notes May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

Shonte Wright, ’97
Night on the Red Planet
By Daniel Strumpf


Shonte Wright, ’97

A spectacular sunset on Mars. It was one of the hundreds of photographs that the Spirit and Opportunity rovers beamed back, inspiring a new craze for the Red Planet. But for Shonte Wright, ’97, a thermal systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the frigid Martian night that followed the sunset was the ultimate test for the systems she had worked on.

As one of the chief designers of the thermal systems on the Mars Exploration Rover mission, Wright helped create and test the heating systems that protect the hundreds of tiny solar powered motors. It is these motors that allow the rovers to roll, rotate and bore into rock. Encased in a radiation resistant Kapton and Teflon laminate, the wirewound and etched foil circuit heaters are paper thin, flexible, and most important—because every ounce counts on the 396 pound rover—they must be lightweight.

It is a critical aspect of the mission on a planet where temperatures can drop from 32 to minus 140 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few hours. “Anything that moves on a rover has a motor and every motor has a heater and a temperature sensor,” Wright says. “Without the heaters, the rover dies.”

During her tenure with JPL, Wright has garnered several NASA awards and, with the current Mars mission exceeding expectations, she is looking forward to new challenges. Next up, preparing for the 2009 launch of an unmanned mission to search for Earth-sized planets and map the galaxy. With a new push for a manned mission to follow the rovers, the future is full of possibilities.

“ Maybe it will be my kids landing on Mars,” she says. “They
can stick the flag in the ground for mommy.”


Shonte Receives Outstanding Alumna Award Recognition at Jacobs School Banquet

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Mars Exploration Rover Mission

"Maybe it will be my kids landing on Mars. They
can stick the flag in the ground for mommy."