July 29, 2020 – Sarah Milkovich Ph. D. is the Assistant Science Office Manager for the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Mission.
My mother’s maiden name was Milković (which is a common Croatian last name, to be fair), so when I noticed that in the internet community I enjoy, there was another person with that last name, I reached out to her and told her that she was probably my long lost cousin. She’s most likely not, in all honesty. Still, that lead to us talking a bit more and me realizing what an awesome person I started talking to. Sarah Milkovich is not just your run-of-the-mill great scientist; her biography is so impressive it’s not easy even to summarize it into a few sentences.
A bachelor’s degree in planetary science from Caltech and a Ph.D. in planetary geology from the Ivy League Brown University tend to lead to a job at NASA, and Sarah has worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a while now, where she’s worked on several major missions. Those include the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and the previous Mars rover, Curiosity. These days Sarah and her team are very busy on their new mission, the Mars 2020 rover, which is set to be launched towards Mars tomorrow, on July 30, 2020. I interviewed her for my radio science talk show on Croatian radio back in March, but due to numerous complications too complex to elaborate on, our conversation was broadcast yesterday (if you want to hear the entire conversation and can follow it in Croatian, you can hear it here).
Sarah explained to me how her great-grandparents on her father’s side arrived from Croatia to the USA quite a long time ago, from a village in Croatia near the Slovenian border (which is a piece of information later confirmed in a conversation on Twitter, where Sarah used a Slovenian word for what we’d call orahnjača or orehnjača in Croatia, thus bursting every last small remaining bubble of hope that I might be related to such a brilliant person, as my family was from nowhere near Slovenia 🙁 ). Her father was the first one in his family in the States who married outside the Croatian community. Sarah was born and raised in Minnesota, learning about geology from her parents, and about space exploration from watching the numerous documentaries on the topic. She explained all about the planetary geology, how it takes what we understand about the forces which formed the Earth, and applies that to figure out how the same forces would’ve worked under the conditions which are present on other planets. It started by using telescopes, but these days, as we are capable of landing delicate equipment on Mars, they’re applying similar techniques and methods used in geology on Earth (except that, of course, we still can’t get the samples back, but we’re hoping to be able to do that soon).
She explained to me what the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover would be about: it’s a car-sized vehicle, planned to land into the Jezero crater on Mars (if that sounds a bit Croatian to you, you’re right, the crater was named after the Croatian word for a lake and a village in Bosnia). The shape of the crater strongly suggests there used to be a river going into it at some point, back when there was flowing water on the surface of Mars. The time period of that running water seems to match the time period when life began on Earth, and since the conditions were similar on Mars and Earth back then, the scientists are trying to find evidence that there was life on Mars then. In the conversation, I got to hear many more technical details on the rover and about the plans for its operation on Mars, including the ambitious plans to collect samples and leave them on the surface of Mars for some future mission, which will be able to collect them and bring them back to Earth. Oh, yeah, the mission will also include a Mars helicopter, although we didn’t talk about it much!
Follow the launch of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover tomorrow, and wish the rover and the people behind it (including our own Sarah Milkovich) the best of luck and a successful mission after it lands on Mars in February of 2021!