Fred Calef stands in front of the high bay at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, with a view into the clean room with the Perseverance rover (upside down) in the background. Photos courtesy of Fred Calef and NASA.
Like thousands of people nowadays, Fred Calef ’10 has been working remotely. Nothing can stop the making of Mars maps, especially when there’s a newly arrived NASA rover on the surface needing directions.
“It wasn’t unusual for me to be making maps for the rovers from my local coffee shop,” Calef said two days before NASA's latest rover was to arrive on Mars. “Why make the hour drive into Pasadena when I can get the work done now? We’ve certainly trained and planned for working remotely. Since the rover lives on Mars, we’re used to working on other planets’ time periods, so we’ll be great when the rover lands.”
Calef, a former graduate student of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is the lead map person on NASA’s Perseverance rover mission. He works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
Being a mapmaker means he’s part of a small team that uses data from the Perseverance rover to create a map of where it’s been and, when requested by the rover’s science team, where it’s going on its search for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars. Mapmaking was also key for getting the rover safely over to the Martian “airfield,” where it successfully unloaded the small Ingenuity helicopter for the historic first controlled flight on another planet.
“We do make maps of where the rover is after every drive. In fact, it’s our job to localize where the rover is every time it moves,” Calef said by email March 3, just under two weeks after Perseverance landed on Mars.
Tracks reveal the route of the Perseverance’s first drive on the surface of Mars.
“Now, the rover does give us a hint by saying how far it thinks it drove (how many times the wheels turned) and in what direction. When it stops driving, it takes pictures that we use to figure out where we are. So, we make maps of where the rover is in addition to maps showing where science was done (i.e., what rock did we take a picture of, which rock we zapped with our laser, etc.).”
Calef and the two map team members he works with also add data to a web-based mapping tool — “kind of like Google Maps,” he wrote —that lets science team members make their own maps and highlight areas where they think the rover should go next.
“We also make maps on request from science team members or make new map layers to support the rover drivers to find the safest places to drive,” he wrote.
Calef and his team don’t just serve the needs of the Perseverance science team. They also make maps for the public and for science publications. They have created an online map through which anyone can track the rover’s explorations.
Always the scientist
Calef is a California native but attended high school in Massachusetts — Quincy High School, known as “Home of the Presidents.” He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Earth science from the University of Massachusetts Boston and a master’s in geological sciences from Ohio University. He came to UAF and earned his doctorate in 2010.
What got him interested in space and science? His grandfather.
“My grandfather was a big influence growing up. He would take me into the woods and pick up a rock and describe how it was formed and what the Earth looked like when it was around,” Calef writes on a biography page on the website of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “The ability to learn something new from observation made science something I wanted to pursue.
“For space, I love that every day we see a new view never seen by anyone ever before! That exploration spirit drove me to search the solar system and Mars in particular for what mysteries it contains.”
Calef knew at a young age that he wanted to be a scientist. It just wasn’t clear what type of science he would be studying, he wrote in answer to a question on the NASA webpage that asked, “When you were in elementary school, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
“The ability to learn something new from observation made science something I wanted to pursue.”
“A scientist! Though I didn’t quite know what kind of scientist,” he wrote. “My interests ranged from paleontology (who doesn’t love dinosaurs!) to primates to lasers (the first book I remember getting from the library in 2nd grade was on lasers and masers).”