Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

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The women powering the Mars rover laser

The brains behind the Curiosity rover's rock-penetrating laser, which last year enabled the discovery of an ancient Martian lake bed.
July 18, 2019
Six women stand behind a piece of equipment and pose for a picture.

The women of the ChemCam Engineering Operations team (from left): Suzi Montano, Adriana Reyes-Newell, Roberta Beal, Lisa Danielson, Nina Lanza, and Cindy Little.

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“That’s why a diverse workforce is so important. If you have a diverse team, the members will likely have a network of talented people.”- Nina Lanza

The laser that zaps rocks on Mars is commanded by a talented group of engineers and scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory—a team that also happens to be made completely of women, a rarity in the engineering field.

“It’s unusual, simply because engineering still tends to be male dominated,” says Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist in the group who helped recruit other members. “Typically on teams like this, you’ll have a few women, but a majority are men. I don’t know of any other instruments on the Mars Curiosity rover that have an all-female engineering team.”

The women are responsible for sending commands to the ChemCam instrument, which shoots Martian rocks with a laser to determine their chemical make-up. The laser was developed at Los Alamos in conjunction with the French space agency and played a key role in the discovery of the existence of an ancient lake on the Red Planet.

The team meets daily with planetary scientists from around the world, who identify which rocks on the surface of Mars to zap and analyze. The engineering team then figures out what commands to send to the ChemCam instrument to make that possible.

“This job requires a lot of long hours and dedication,” says Lisa Danielson, the ChemCam operations manager. “And there’s a high intensity that requires excellent communication and teamwork. We work really well together and are very supportive of each other. We create a very positive environment and know that we can depend on each other.”

It wasn’t intentional to create the all-woman team, Lanza says. They were just looking for the best people for the job. “What matters is that they have the right set of skills and the right personality.” But as more women fill leadership roles, Lanza says, teams like this are bound to become more common.

“Women in the sciences know other women in the sciences,” Lanza says. “That’s why a diverse workforce is so important. If you have a diverse team, the members will likely have a network of talented people—so you find people you might have never found otherwise.”


A rover on the surface of Mars.

The Mars Curiosity rover.