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Charles Elachi professor at Caltech and Director of the JPL from 2001 to 2016

par | Juin 15, 2024 | Interviews / Podcasts, Retrouvez toutes nos actualités | 0 commentaires

 

“Believe in your dreams ! There are many examples of success in society.”

 

Dr Charles Elachi, of Lebanon origin, is a professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and has been the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 2001 to 2016, prestigious centre of the NASA, located in California. Dr Charles Elachi’s specificity, other than his great knowledge of the scientific field, is his significant participation in the development of aerospace projects in partnership with France, from where he knows their scientific elites. Dr Charles Elachi is an alumnus of the Ecole Polytechnique Universitaire de Grenoble-Alpes (Polytech Grenoble).

 

“During this period, we launched about 25 planetary and terrestrial missions. Each mission was really interesting, fascinating. But the most delicate part of these missions, the most complex was the landing phase. In particular during the different missions on the planet Mars, with the rovers Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity and finally, Perseverance. Because we had worked for a decade for these missions, and the success of them relied on the last 5 minutes, during the penetration of the rover into the Martian atmosphere. These are missions which have a real scientific value. In all these missions, there was the participation of France, with the CNES. We had French tools that were present on these missions. Examples of major French instruments present in the rover Curiosity : SAM and ChemCam. “These two instruments allowed, for five years of uninterrupted exploitation, to discover former rivers, a delta that filled a lake… It detected mineral veins, testimony of a subterranean aqueous activity. It also extended and catalogued sources of sediment, thus identifying all the characteristics of a habitable planet”.  IRAP


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Charles Elachi, professor at the California Institute of Technology, director of the JPL from 2001 to 2016.

By Association Odyssée Céleste, June 2, 2024

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Career History

 

I am of Lebanese origin and I studied in Lebanon, until the baccalaureate. Then, I went to France to the Polytech Institute of Grenoble, to get my engineering degree. I stayed there for 4 years, from 1964 to 1968, during the Winter Olympics, in Grenoble. You probably remember Jean-Claude Killy, the great French skier, triple olympic champion in downhill skiing, in Grenoble.

Then, I came to the US to do my PhD, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The subject of my thesis, in applied physics, was on “the propagation of electromagnetic waves in a periodic environment”. It was a completely theoretical thesis that I had done in California, before I started working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Specificities of the California Institute of Technology, Caltech

 

It is a private college, which is not financed by the American government. It is a small university, composed of more than 2.000 students : about 1.000 study engineering, biology…. In a Bachelor degree, the equivalent of a licence in France, so 3 years after graduation; about 1.000 students are doing their PhD, and finally, there are more than 300 professors. It is a very productive university because at Caltech, as our history has shown for these past decades, there have been 47 Nobel Prizes who were students, or teachers or alumni of Caltech.

We most specifically do developments and some interdisciplinarity with scientific disciplines such as biology, astronomy, electrical engineering, and the spatial field because there is a strong collaboration with the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) which has been founded by Caltech. Before becoming a centre of NASA, it was a centre of Caltech. There are quite a lot of interactions between the JPL and Caltech. To give you an idea, at the JPL, there are almost 7.000 engineers and scientists -it is a big laboratory. There is a strong collaboration between the students, who work once a week at the JPL, and the researchers, who also are teachers at Caltech.

Three big projects

 

“During this period, we launched about 25 planetary and terrestrial missions. Each mission was really interesting, fascinating. But the most delicate part of these missions, the most complex, was the landing phase; in particular during the different missions on the planet Mars, with the rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and then Curiosity. Because we had worked for a decade for these missions, and the success of them relied on the last 5 minutes, during the penetration of the rover into the Martian atmosphere. By taking into account the fact that the communication between the Earth and Mars took around 10 minutes, it meant that our time of reactivity was deferred. These are missions which have a great scientific value. In all these missions, there was the participation of France, with the CNES. We had French instruments that were present on these missions. Examples of major French tools present in the rover Curiosity : SAM and ChemCam. “These two instruments allowed, for five years of uninterrupted exploitation, to discover former rivers, a delta that filled a lake… It detected mineral veins, testimony of a subterranean aqueous activity. It also extended and catalogued sources of sediment, thus identifying all the characteristics of a habitable planet”.  IRAP

Another mission, also really important, was when we integrated a small helicopter, Ingenuity, in one of the missions concerning the landing on Mars (Perseverance mission). A first in the history of planetary aerospace. This has opened a new field of exploration, by using flying objects instead of only using rovers on the surface. We were not sure that this would work, we really took huge risks to demonstrate and confirm our technological capacities. This other very important mission was the Cassini-Huygens probe, a mission towards Saturn, in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA). The goal was to explore the planet Saturn and all its satellites, particularly Titan, since it is a satellite that is even bigger than our Moon. It has a diameter of 5,149.5 km, covered by clouds. In this probe, we integrated a radar, to which I was the main supervisor. This allowed us to see that, on Titan, there were lakes, rivers, exactly like on Earth, except that these rivers were composed of methane.

 

 

Halim Bennadja ( project director at the Association Odyssée Céleste) :

It is one of the defining features of both scientific domains : biology, living things, and astronomy. The scientist, on Earth, can take a cell and analyse it in his laboratory, whereas the astronomer cannot take a star or a piece of star and run experiments in his laboratory. So much so that we are in great challenges, that we try to do this achievement : to observe, to look and experiment but in situ, by moving with extreme distances only; and go on a satellite to observe, go on a comet to collect data, from which will come out valuable reflexions, very interesting. In other words, we are experiencing a form of rupture between traditional and modern knowledge.

 

To understand the efforts taken by France, the CNES, for the preservation of partnerships with the NASA, we recommend you the listening of Nicolas Maubert’s interview :

Nicolas Maubert, Représentant du CNES aux États-Unis

 

A particular meeting

My teachers in Lebanon, Grenoble and finally here, at Caltech, were all very interesting, passionate ! They all had a common trait : they made science something really interesting. I perfectly recall in Grenoble one of my professors, Louis Néel (1904-2000), who had received the Nobel Prize during the period when I was in Grenoble. He was just like my counsellor, my advisor !

He made physics something very interesting for me and talked in particular about planetary explorations. He was the one who made me want to come to Caltech after my PhD, because I had shared with him my interest in spatial studies and spatial exploration. So, he told me that what would be the best for me would be a great University, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), because there is a collaboration between the university and the spatial centre of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These two institutions only are at 5 km (3,10 miles) of distance. This proximity and collaboration were one of the reasons I came to Caltech.

 

 

 

Advice to the new generation, leaders of the JPL

Some of your employees have mentioned your visionary leadership, which has hugely helped the JPL to realise the most fascinating and innovative missions. Which pieces of advice could you give to the new generation of leaders, to have as much impact as you had?

I am going to say the same thing I say to my students here, at Caltech. There are 3 important things to remember :

1. The first one : everything is possible ! If, truly, you want to do something and you work hard for it, everything is possible!

2. The second one is that you have to be passionate in what you do. Because when you are going to spend most of your life working in a specific field, e. g. in the music field, the artistic one or working as a scientist, as an engineer, no matter which discipline you choose, you need to have passion ! If you are not passionate about it, you have to change and do something else !

3.  The third one is that you have to force yourself to take risks. Because if you are going to do new discoveries, if you are going to do something new, most of the time, you are not sure that it will work. For example, in our planetary missions, we take risks all the time, but we have been thinking about these risks for a long time, because we are not 100% sure that things will work out.

These are my three recommendations to the young students here at Caltech : everything is possible, you just need to have patience in what you do, and you need to take risks in your work. If things don’t work out, it is okay. You learn, it gives you an experience. At the JPL, we have done some missions that resulted in a failure, but we learned from them and it allowed us to understand and to do something better.

We recommend you the listening of some engineers from the new generation, particularly active in aerospace projects :

      

 

The importance of the emergence of true scientists

 

Some people even say that our societies do not allow anymore, or hardly at the very least, the apparition of true theoreticians in our society, following the paces of Albert Einstein, Henri Poincaré, Mohammed Abdul Salam, Peter Higgs… What do you think about it? Which pieces of advice and reflections can you share with us about this subject?

Nota Bene : the theoretician and physicist Mohammed Abdus Salam (1926-1996) created in 1964, under the supervision of the Italian government, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) located in Trieste, Italy. One of the missions of the institute is to encourage the development of advanced studies and research in physics and mathematics, in particular in the support of excellence in developing countries.

It is true. Here, at Caltech, we are making a great effort to communicate with the public about the importance of the scientific domain in the daily life of people. For example, we have a series of organisations and events open to the public, where we invite the people of the region and where we explain, through scientific lectures, but specifically adapted to the general public, for them to appreciate and be aware of the importance of science.

I give a lecture each week. I share my knowledge in schools, with the public, in general, about the role of science and space, and how it participates in the change of our lives. An example that I like to share : everyone has an iPhone, a smartphone. In all iPhones, there is a camera, and I explain to them that the focal plan of these cameras was developed 20 years ago at the JPL (NASA), for astronomical instruments.

We needed a small camera that had to be very small, miniaturised and light. So we did some research, and we developed this camera. Then a businessman said “Ha, I could use this for the iPhones.” It is an example I give to the public, the contribution of scientists and engineers has had a role in the change of our daily life.

To get more of “the spirit of development” seen through the example of mobile phone and its miniaturisation, we recommend you the interview of the businessman Belgacem Haba, the man with more than 1.500 patents :

Belgacem Haba, chercheur en nanoélectroniques à Xperi Corporation

 

Examples of know-how linked to astronomy and aerospace :

 

We can take the example of the periscopic sextant that was put in the cockpit of planes for them to know their location, thanks to the stars. It is the well-known ‘navigation by the stars’, just like former sailors.

They had to have an excellent knowledge of astronomy, and perfectly master celestial mechanics, to be able to navigate and move while being in flight. Indeed, the plane being located above the first layer of clouds, there were many more possibilities to see and to observe the stars in the middle of the night. A star navigator would deal with the use of the sextant, with precise adjustments and very small amounts of time for the viewfinder of each star.

This allowed the navigator to obtain more or less accurate values on the location of the plane. But this know-how has completely disappeared, since the space revolution has established other frames and landmarks, means that allow us to have a much more precise localisation via the put into orbit of diverse satellites and the use of the GPS.

Indeed, I’m going to give you another example. When I do public interventions, I talk about spatial technology, and how we use it. I often ask this question to the audience : « How many people have used space these past 24 hours among you?”. Usually, some people raise their hand to share their knowledge on the subject. To answer this question, I recall them that, when they came with their car, they used Google Maps and their localisation, and they have thus used space, because the GPS (Global Positioning System) has helped them moving to arrive at said conference; and how to go from point A to point B. The people are a little surprised because they don’t think that satellites are the ones to have helped them in their trip. To give examples like this one demonstrates the importance of space research and of spatial systems.

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Dr Charles Elachi, professor at the California Institute Of Technology (Caltech). Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory-NASA (2001-2016)