Georgia Tech grad now living on Martian time as part of Perseverance rover project

ATLANTA — If you think you have a weird work schedule, odds are Luke Walker has you beat.

Walker is currently a flight system systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

For the last six years Walker, a Georgia Tech B.S. and MBA grad, has worked on the Mars Perseverance project in several different roles.

In order for him to do his job he has to be on Mars time, which has more hours in a day than Earth time.

“A Mars day is 25 hours,” said Walker. “During early operations, you’re trying to optimize everything, so we only operate the rover during Martian daytime. We sync our schedule to when the rover is awake, so every day, I wake up 40 to 50 minutes later than the last day. Daytime could be from noon to 10 p.m. and it slowly rotates around.”

Since the rover landed on Mars in February, Walker has held two different roles.

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“During the first five days on Mars, he worked on the surface operations transition, where he had to make sure Perseverance was safe and healthy and started configuring the rover. Since then, he has served as team lead for the mechanisms chair, where he analyzes data that is sent back from the rover,” Georgia Tech said in a news release.

Walker said one of the most exciting parts of the project for him so far was landing day, where he watched Perseverance land on Mars from mission control.

“It was a really interesting experience because you have no control. We plan everything months in advance, and we’ve already put the plans on board the rover, so we don’t do any commanding live,” Walker said. “All we are doing is sitting and watching, holding on, and hoping for the best. That moment when I heard ‘Touchdown confirmed, Perseverance is safe on Mars,’ it was just a huge relief.”

Walker and his crew got the first images from Mars about two to three hours after it landed.

“It’s a phenomenal feeling to see those pictures,” Walker said. “I think for the first five days, every time an image would come back, everyone would crowd around the computer screen and just watch. No matter what we were doing, we would stop and pause and look at the pictures. Even if you were supposed to be doing something more important, getting these pictures back from another planet or a place no one has ever seen is pretty neat.”

Walker credits his love for space to “visiting the Kennedy Space Center and Johnson Space Center when he was a kid. Initially wanting to be an astronaut, Walker, a Texas native, realized that he needed to get involved in aerospace engineering, which eventually led him to Georgia Tech.”