31 March 2014

2014 Pickering Lecture: Exploring the Unknown – to Mars and Beyond

Dr Charles Elachi is a space explorer who led the recent mission to Mars with a rover called Curiosity. As the 2014 Pickering Lecture speaker, he toured New Zealand giving free public lectures on space exploration and his role as Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Charles Elachi’s lectures generated enormous public interest and broke attendance records for the Pickering Lecture series.

Behind the scenes stories about how NASA landed on Mars

The internationally-recognised space expert is excited to share his work developing robotics and other high-tech devices to explore the unknown worlds of our solar system. Following JPL’s successful mission to Mars in 2012, when Curiosity made a near impossible landing on our sister planet, he has many behind-the-scenes stories to share.

Highlights from the Wellington lecture (3 mins)

Full video from the Wellington lecture (49 mins)

A career in space

Drawn to the vast abyss of space, Dr Elachi spends almost every day investigating and finding new ways to explore different galaxies and planets. He has written more than 230 publications in the fields of active microwave remote sensing and electromagnetic theory.

Dr Elachi also holds several patents in those fields – and space exploration has been a life-long quest to which he has dedicated his 40-year career.

Robotics in space

Developing robotic explorers and launching them into space is a key component of Dr Elachi’s role at JPL, helping mankind go where no one has gone before.

The Curiosity, a one-tonne, $2.5 billion machine, landed at Mars’ Gale Crater in 2013. JPL currently has 23 spacecraft which it monitors across the solar system, but the Mars landing was an example of leading-edge engineering at its best, Dr Elachi says.

Curiosity’s near-impossible touchdown on Mars required an extraordinary sequence of events, slowing the incoming spacecraft from a blistering 20,900 kilometres/hour to 3.2km/h in just seven minutes. It was described by one science commentator as the equivalent of “man landing on the ​moon for the Twitter generation”.

New Zealand's contribution to NASA’s space exploration – Sir William Pickering

Before Dr Elachi, a New Zealander led JPL’s space exploration. Affectionately known as “Mr JPL” or the original “Rocket Man”, Wellington-born Sir William Pickering was the director of JPL before retiring in 1976. The incumbent Dr Elachi took over in 2001. Under his tenure, the world's knowledge of space grew as JPL built spacecraft that sent back the first close-up photographs of the lunar surface, Venus and the surface of Mars. Honouring this link to New Zealand engineering is part of the reason Dr Elachi agreed to visit New Zealand as the Pickering Lecture speaker.

Biography – Dr Charles Elachi

Dr Elachi joined JPL in 1970. Prior to becoming Director, he was JPL’s Director for Space and Earth Science Programs (beginning in 1982), where he was responsible for the development of numerous flight missions and instruments for Earth observation, planetary exploration and astrophysics.

He has also been a principal investigator on a number of NASA-sponsored studies and flight projects including the Shuttle Imaging Radar series (Science Team Leader), the Magellan Imaging Radar (Team Member), and the Cassini Titan Radar (Team Leader).

His work has won numerous awards and he has served on a number of academy committees, including the National Academy of Engineering.