NASA Grant Helps Alumna Contribute to Search for Life on Mars

Alumna Haley Cummings ’16, ’18

Is there life on Mars? Or did life exist on Mars in the past? These are the questions that alumna Haley Cummings ’16, ‘18 and her team will help to answer with a $2.5 million grant from NASA. Cummings is a design engineer at NASA’s Ames Aeromechanics Office and the primary investigator on a project to optimize the blades of a helicopter that will traverse the surface by “hopping” across the harsh atmosphere and rough terrain on Mars.

The extremely rough terrain on the red planet consists of craters, rims, cliffs, caves, ice and highland regions making it difficult to collect data necessary to find evidence of life on Mars.  Currently, scientists gather data with orbiting satellites, which are limited in ability compared to roving vehicles that land on the surface of Mars to collect soil samples, for example.

Future Mars helicopters with superior blades designed by Cummings and her team of four female engineers and expert NASA scientists will allow the vehicle to travel farther and faster and carry heavier payloads.

The two-year project entitled the “Rotorcraft Optimization for the Advancement of Mars eXploration” (ROAMX) helped improve the current Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstrator Ingenuity on its flight on Mars in early 2021.

Advanced Mars Helicopter with optimized blades and larger resulting payload capacity compared to Ingenuity.

The Ingenuity is part of the NASA Ames Aeromechanics Office project with the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. The grant is funded by the NASA FY21 Space Technology Mission Directorate Early Career Initiative Project.

Cummings first met her team of female researchers as interns at NASA. After graduation, they were all hired by NASA in the Rotorcraft Aeromechanics Branch at the Ames Research Center. “It is really amazing and inspiring to work with so many talented, intelligent, committed women,” she said.

Cummings graduated from NIU with a BS and an MS in mechanical engineering. She grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas and was interested in aerospace and working for NASA at a young age, taking part in the High School Aerospace Scholar Programs in high school. She obtained her first of several internships with NASA her freshman year at NIU, and while pursuing her master’s degree, was accepted into the Pathways Internship program which led to a full-time job with NASA after graduation.

She chose NIU because, in addition to pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at a university close to Chicago, she also was looking to play soccer at a school with an NCAA Division 1 women’s soccer team. NIU checked both boxes. Cummings attributes her career success to the small class sizes and the caring, accessible faculty and staff at NIU.

“Dr. Collier inspired me to think outside of the box and pursue a true understanding of the fundamentals, which inevitably helps to understand the specific application, plus his classes were just fun,” said Cummings.

She credits Professor Gau for teaching her accurate hand calculations and for introducing her to the textbook Design of Machine Elements that she still uses today.

“Dr. Vahabzadeh helped me understand the importance of literature reviews and introduced me to research – she showed me the mindset and how fun it is to pursue discovering new things that fit within what you are passionate about,” she added. “The research I was able to conduct under Dr. Vahabzadeh for my master’s program helped me prepare for research with NASA.”

About CEET

Ranked in the top 35 undergraduate engineering programs without a doctorate by U.S. World and News Report for 2021, the college is housed in three facilities totaling nearly 150,000 square feet and boasts more than 35 state-of-the-art laboratories that offer hands-on learning experiences to students from freshmen year through graduate school. CEET was established in 1985 and offers degree programs accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and the Association of Technology, Management and Applied Engineering (ATMAE) in electrical engineering, engineering technology, industrial and systems engineering, and mechanical engineering. In 2018, CEET introduced bachelor’s degree programs in biomedical and mechatronics engineering and in 2019 introduced doctoral degree programs in mechanical, electrical, and industrial and systems engineering.

CEET offers free virtual events for students interested in pursuing a degree in engineering or engineering technology.




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