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Montreal-born NASA engineer excited to steer rover seeking signs of ancient life on Mars

Between watching Apollo 13, Star Wars and Canadian astronaut Julie Payette’s first trip into space, Farah Alibay says she always had the bug for space exploration.

Now, the Montreal-born NASA aerospace engineer is waiting for the Perseverance rover — currently hurtling toward Mars at a speed of nearly 40,000 kilometres per hour — to land on the Red Planet.

“It’s very strange to say: oh my baby is gone now, it’s on [its way to] another planet,” said Alibay, who says she felt a mix of stress and anticipation watching the launch with colleagues over video chat, despite this being her second Mars mission.

The rover, which started its voyage on a rocket that blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. July 30, is scheduled to land in February on a mission to search for signs of past microbial life on Mars.

“There were a lot of hurdles along the way in building this rover, getting it out there, the biggest one being the COVID situation recently,” Alibay said. “So making it to the pad, making it on time and being on our way to Mars is such a crazy feeling.”

Once the rover lands on in the Jezero Crater on the Red Planet, Alibay will be one of the people driving it remotely.

“We don’t just use a joystick. It’s not like a video game,” she said.

This artist’s concept depicts Perseverance rover exploring Mars. The rover is currently hurtling toward Mars at a speed of nearly 40,000 kilometres per hour. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Instead, the team will be in Pasadena, Calif. operating the rover using ultra high frequency radio signals, Alibay explained. The signals will take between 5 and 20 minutes to reach Mars, depending on the two planets’ positions.

In the meantime, while they wait for it to finish its journey, she says, the team will be doing lots of little fixes and preparation. 

When the rover’s work begins, Alibay will be working through the Martian night to explore the Red Planet daily for the first ninety days.

Alibay said she’s excited for the rover to record new images of Mars. The ground crew will ask the rover to drive a set amount of metres during the day and collect data.

“The images that it will send us back in the Martian night when we come in will be of a totally different place on Mars than it had been the day before.”

“I think that’s going to be the most incredible feeling, sort of sending the rover off on its own,” she said.

Her advice? Take a leap of faith

Alibay’s advice to young people dreaming of a career in the space sector is to not let anyone tell them no, and to jump at any good opportunity.

She grew up in Joliette, 50 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

She said in high school, a career counsellor told her that she would not succeed in aerospace because it was a male-dominated field.

“Had I listened to her, I wouldn’t be here today and, honestly, I probably wouldn’t be enjoying going to work as much as I am today,” Alibay, 32, said.

“The fact that I enjoy it and I’m so passionate about it and it’s a pleasure to go to work — it’s a quality of life and a privilege that I wish everyone could have by pursuing their dreams.”

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