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Roseville native assists on Mars rover Curiosity

Helps perfect landing radar for rover that touched down Aug. 5
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Roseville native Joey Brown waited at a bar with several colleagues to find out what would happen with the Mars rover Curiosity.

Would the rover crash into the planet at 700 mph, or would the device's landing radar work as designed, settling the rover gently onto Mars's surface?

Brown, 29, was deeply invested in the result: He'd been one of the project's entry descent and landing engineers. The rover launched in November and approached its landing Aug. 5. Then Brown heard from NASA's mission control that the landing had been successful.

"We definitely celebrated," he said. "We cheered and cried and all started toasting. Then (mission control) came over and we had a dance party all night long. I do mean all night long."

Since 2005, Brown has worked for NASA in Pasadena. Most of his workload has involved developing the rover's landing radar. That meant repeatedly testing the technology - on helicopters, F-18s and more - to make sure it would detect and hit the ground safely.

"It's the most complex landing of all time," Brown said.

This precision landing was the first time scientists picked a specific location on a planet as the destination. Scientists eventually settled on Gale Crater. The rover will collect information to help scientists determine whether Mars could have supported life.

Curiosity is scheduled to stay on the planet for two years, assuming it survives that long. Only three rovers have previously landed on Mars for brief stints.

Brown graduated from Woodcreek High School in 2000. He was last in town for the premiere of his friends' film "Lost Woods." He appears as the lead character in the thriller. Co-director Nathan Ellering describes Brown as an inspiring and motivated individual.

"I've known him since elementary school and he has wanted to be involved with NASA and the space program for as long as I have known him," Ellering said. "He always used to say he wanted to be an astronaut. Joey is the exact opposite of a cynic. He has 100 percent confidence in any endeavor he sets his mind to because he never stops to think how hard something will be to achieve. He finds (the) steps to succeed and marks them off one by one."

Brown graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in aerospace engineering with an emphasis on propulsion.

"So, I got to blow up a lot of rockets," he said. "College was rockets, surfing and beer."

Brown started graduate school at Stanford University but didn't finish because he got too involved with the rover. He'd spent a lot of time in the desert experimenting with new rocket technology, which caught NASA's attention, so they offered him a job.

"It was college or the rover and I chose the rover," he said.

He's still basking in the excitement of Curiosity's successful landing and the beginning of the rover's exploration of Mars - and the answers the expedition might bring.

"It's human nature for us to explore and see what's out there and (ask) are we alone?" Brown said. "These are fundamental questions that reverberate with the human soul."

Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at SenaC_RsvPT.