Life at JPL Hack Chat

It ain't rocket surgery. No wait, it is...

Wednesday, August 21, 2019 12:00 pm PDT Local time zone:
Hack Chat
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Ara Kourchians, better known as Arko, will host the Hack Chat on August 21, 2019.

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Join Hack ChatThere's a reason why people use "rocket science" as a metaphor for things that are hard to do. Getting stuff from here to there when there is a billion miles away and across a hostile environment of freezing cold, searing heat, and pelting radiation isn't something that's easily accomplished. It takes a dedicated team of scientists and engineers working on machines that can reach out into the vastness of space and work flawlessly the whole time, and as much practice and testing as an Earth-based simulation can provide.

Arko is a Robotics Electrical Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of NASA's research and development centers. Nestled at the outskirts of Pasadena against the flanks of the San Gabriel Mountains, JPL is the birthplace of the nation's first satellite and the first successful interplanetary probe. They build the robots that explore the solar system and beyond for us; Arko gets to work on those space robots every day, and that might just be the coolest job in the world.

Join us on the Hack Chat to get your chance to ask all those burning questions you have about working at JPL. What's it like to build hardware that will leave this world and travel to another? Get the inside story on how NASA designs and tests systems for space travel. And perhaps get a glimpse at what being a rocket scientist is all about.

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 2

    Lutetium08/21/2019 at 20:03 0 comments

    morgan12:35 PM
    (the signs in the court yard is my favorite piece)

    James Finch joined  the room.12:36 PM

    Adam12:36 PM
    Do you need any sort of security clearance for the work that you do ?

    morgan12:36 PM
    would imagine they're part of the media dept.

    morgan12:36 PM


    The Studio at JPL

    The Studio is a team of designers, artists, makers, strategists, and thinkers. We are passionate about helping scientists and engineers imagine the future, and giving people a sense of awe about the universe.

    Read this on Nasa

    arko12:36 PM
    Not for the work I do

    arko12:37 PM
    @morgan oh yeah! I have not work with the studio, but I'm a fan :)

    Gonçalo Nespral12:37 PM
    Did most people who work at JPL go to top unis?

    arko12:37 PM

    James Finch12:37 PM
    What software management tool(s) do you use?

    baldwinngo081312:37 PM
    I know an engineer at JPL who went to UC Merced, so not sure uni matters

    arko12:38 PM
    there are lots of folks from MIT, Caltech, etc.. but there are also folks like me from Cal Poly Pomona or whatever. Uni doesn't matter IMO

    arko12:38 PM
    I brought a bunch of PCBs and robots to my interview

    arko12:38 PM
    figured results speak louder than "i passed ECE 405"

    ap-tech12:38 PM

    arko12:39 PM
    @James Finch we have a lot of in house tools, but generic things like MS Projects and JIRA are used too

    James Finch12:40 PM
    Are the change control processes still paper based or are they migrated to software apps?

    Christopher Bero12:40 PM
    Oh no, JIRA... *Your board has been updated [refresh]*

    arko12:41 PM
    software with paper backup

    arko12:41 PM
    custom in-house tools are a double edge sword. They allow for flexibility, but that also means that they can grow into these complex UX nightmares

    arko12:43 PM
    I should also mention, the 'prototype' project im working on

    arko12:43 PM


    de∫hipu12:44 PM
    oh, shiny!

    Christopher Bero12:44 PM

    ap-tech12:44 PM
    Awesome! :D

    arko12:44 PM
    It's called LLAMA. We build Rev 1.0 back in October and we are almost done building Rev 2.0, so you should be seeing a press release on that soon

    arko12:45 PM

    Christopher Bero12:45 PM

    arko12:45 PM
    This was actually the first project i've worked on here where I got a chance to drastically improve the design of something.

    de∫hipu12:46 PM
    what's the use case?

    Christopher Bero12:46 PM
    You're partnered with ARL?

    Adam12:46 PM
    What did you drastically improve the deisgn of?

    ap-tech12:46 PM
    What did you improve on it?

    arko12:46 PM
    We typically build one-off prototypes, but for this task we got to do the whole "I wish i changed that part and optimized that thing"

    arko12:47 PM
    I can't speak much about it yet, but at a very high level we made it less heavy and improved the power management /data system

    Gonçalo Nespral12:48 PM
    this is so cool

    Christopher Bero12:48 PM

    arko12:48 PM
    @de∫hipu robotic mobility research for us. this is probably JPL's first truely dynamic robot.

    de∫hipu12:48 PM
    from the existence of fans I guess it's only good in Earth atmosphere

    arko12:48 PM
    we like to build quazi-static robot which perform very calculated movements

    arko12:49 PM
    I.e.- Robosimian

    Do you see a quadruped robot as a viable platform for planetary exploration? As opposed to wheeled vehicles

    arko12:49 PM


    Christopher Bero12:49 PM

    de∫hipu12:50 PM
    I love the design of robosimian, I think the Interstellar would be a much better movie if the robots there were like that

    Christopher Bero12:50 PM
    Oh man, yeah I agree

    de∫hipu12:50 PM
    instead of those ridiculous black obelisk defying laws of mechanics...

    Read more »

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

    Lutetium08/21/2019 at 20:02 0 comments

    Hi everyone, welcome to the Hack Chat. It's time for us all to learn about what for a lot of us would be a dream job - working at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Arko joins us today to talk about what it's like to be a robotics engineer at JPL.

    Welcome Arko! Can you start us off with a little about your background?

    arko12:00 PM
    Howdy everyone!

    Aaron Waruszewski joined  the room.12:00 PM

    Aaron Waruszewski12:01 PM

    Nicolas Tremblay joined  the room.12:01 PM

    gmarmolburgos12:01 PM

    arko12:01 PM
    Sure! I'm an electrical engineer with a BS from Cal Poly Pomona. I have 12+ years in circuit design, robotics, and random hackery things.

    arko12:02 PM
    Worked on many projects ranging from Mars rovers to DeLorean Time Machines.

    Aaron Waruszewski12:02 PM
    Is there any way for someone with years of professional software experience to get a job working at JPL even if they don't have a degree?

    arko12:02 PM
    For more info, I have a short portfolio online:

    Aaron Waruszewski12:03 PM

    Christopher Bero12:03 PM
    Aw yeah, you have FRC on your site!

    arko12:05 PM
    Hmmm good question... I personally don't know of any SW engineers without a degree and it maybe that there's a policy on having a degree. I would suggest reaching out to our HR department for a better answer:

    arko12:05 PM
    Oddly enough, some of the best SW engineers I know don't have degrees...

    Tanya F. Hakala joined  the room.12:05 PM

    Christopher Bero12:06 PM
    What's been your favorite project at JPL?

    arko12:06 PM
    @Christopher Bero Yes! I was part of Team 589 for all 4 years of high school and went back to mentor :)

    Aaron Waruszewski12:06 PM
    Ok cool.

    Christopher Bero12:06 PM

    arko12:06 PM
    hmmm, I'd have to say the Mars 2020 Rover's Lander Vision System:

    Christopher Bero12:07 PM
    That looks like a pretty intense setup.

    arko12:07 PM
    I had the opportunity to fly in a helicopter at 17000ft to test hardware destined for mars.. so that has to be my favorite (so far!):

    arko12:08 PM
    Yeah, we packed *a lot* of hardware into that helicopter

    Aaron Waruszewski12:08 PM
    What would you say is the best project that has already been launched?

    Nicolas Tremblay12:09 PM
    DeLorean Time machine???

    arko12:10 PM
    For context, we designed and developed a very powerful flight computer/vision system for the M2020 Rover ( so that it can figure out where it is during landing and to divert away from hazards

    Christopher Bero12:10 PM

    arko12:11 PM
    We packed an engineering model of the flight hardware and a bunch of "ground support equipment" hacks into the helicopter as well as a gimbal with a camera and IMU on it

    arko12:11 PM
    and used the gimbal to simulate the parachute motions during descent.

    Aaron Waruszewski12:11 PM

    Were you testing more of the algorithms that will be used for landing or the actual hardware that will fly on the mission too?

    arko12:12 PM
    JPL has this philosophy of "Test as you fly. Fly as you test", meaning you should test your system like how you plan to fly it

    Randall D joined  the room.12:12 PM

    arko12:12 PM
    and remember to fly as you tested it :)

    arko12:13 PM
    @Dan Maloney Great question. It was a full systems test.

    arko12:13 PM
    Up until then, we had tested everything in pieces. So this field test used final flight software and hardware in the most 'flight like' conditions possible

    arko12:14 PM
    The actual flight hardware itself is actually already in the rover () and was tested separately

    gmarmolburgos12:14 PM
    What has been your hardest proyect to achieve?

    arko12:14 PM
    more so a hardware design verifcation test (TVAC/EMI EMC/Vibe/Shock)

    arko12:15 PM
    what we flew in the...

    Read more »

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