[Ed. The views here are those of Caue’s alone and are not representative of SEDS@UM or SEDS as a national organization. We love doctors!]
Caue Borlina is a senior in Aerospace Engineering, also minoring in Physics. Caue is passionate about planetary science and space exploration. He is currently a scientific collaborator for the NASA Mars Science Laboratory Mission (Curiosity Mission) and a research assistant in CLaSP (Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering) at the University of Michigan. His interests include the study of evidence of the presence of water on Mars, geological features in the surface of red planet, and saltation levels, its consequences and how we can correlate them in different planets. He is President for Students for Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), Project Manager for Underwater Vehicle for Europa Exploration (UVEE), Internal Vice President for the Sigma Gamma Tau – Aerospace Honor Society (SGT), and Chair of the Outreach Committee for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Michigan Chapter (AIAA).
What sparked your interest in aerospace engineering?
When I was ten years old, I wanted to be an airplane pilot. Flying was always a mystery to me. And I never actually understood – I mean there’s the physics behind it – but it was so fascinating. For me, it was one of the craziest things ever – this huge thing flying because of physics and engineering. So I wanted to be an airplane pilot just to pilot the thing. But the first time I encountered science and physics and chemistry, I realized that I wanted to do more than simply just fly it. I wanted to be a part of it: part of something meaningful of ‘that thing,’ whatever it was. Whether that thing was representing an airplane or aeronautics, I’m not sure. But I wanted to be part of it, I wanted to have an impact. So that’s how I started leaning towards aerospace engineering.
What led you to studying planetary science?
[When I first came to Michigan], I was thinking of getting an MD with aerospace engineering, because I wanted to work as a doctor for NASA. What talked me down from an MD was that most people were doing it not because they loved being an MD, but because they thought that was the best job they could possibly get… I mean, it’s not that different with engineering, but I think we’re a little bit more passionate about the stuff we do.
I was at the point where I was looking for a project, and S3FL came up. S3FL back had Harvey Elliott leading a project called “Microscopes on Mars,” which became the Michigan Mars Environmental Chamber, [a chamber that replicates environmental conditions on the Martian surface]. At that time, I was working instruments that would be used inside the chamber. That was the first time I got into planetary science.
[Working on the Michigan Mars Environmental Chamber] was the first time I heard about Mars, and I thought “Oh my gosh, this is great, I’m doing research that has impact!” For me, what changed was the day I became a collaborator for Curiosity. So it started with “Microscopes on Mars,” then I worked with the group over the summer and I was moving from doing instrumentation to doing a little bit of science, studying liquid brines on Mars, and working on equations and trying to figure out phase diagrams for different components and how they behave under Martian conditions.
Following that, I got invited to be a scientific operator for MSL, and I think that day, and the weeks before that, were crucial to reach what I like now and what I believe now, which is space exploration and why we do it. [Seeing data from Mars] was so peculiar in the sense that it was so subtle. All the data you’re seeing there is from other planets, not from Earth.
You worked on the Curiosity Rover. What did you do?
My very first project with Curiosity was solving a second-order differential equation that describes heat evolution – a.k.a. the heat equation. It was the first time someone ever computed the surface energy budget for Mars, and [my collaborator] were the first one ever to do thermal inertia based on ground measurements. My very first effort in this project was solving this second order differential equation… it was a very simple thing, just solving an equation, but the tricky part, which was the lead author’s contribution, was how to impose boundary conditions as measurements of the surface of Mars. The measurements taken by Curiosity were used a boundary conditions for solving the problem.
So that was my very first contact with data coming from Curiosity. What followed was my internship at Caltech. I worked on a model to explain how the landing location of Curiosity was formed. By observing specific minerals at the surface of Mars, you can tell what happened in the past. So if you observe minerals that need water to form, then there must have been water in the past. So every time you hear “oh, there’s water on Mars,” it’s because we found some sort of mineral that is somehow correlated to water at some point in its formation process.
What do you like about working at JPL and Caltech?
Last year, I worked at Caltech, and this year I worked at JPL. They’re two different institutions – Caltech is an academic institution, and their philosophy [reflects this]: to ask questions, publish papers, make knowledge available to people. JPL has a different mindset in the sense that everything that is developed there is for missions that are geared towards space exploration. There are people at JPL doing science like at any college, but there are also engineers that are building stuff and planning future missions.
I just want to say that while Caltech is the classic college environment, looking to find the ‘next great thing,’ JPL says, “Ok, we have to find this stuff, but we also need to plan missions, we also need to models and information to make the missions happen.”
How did the department affect your growth as a scientist and an engineer?
I think, as a scientifically inclined person, the [University of Michigan] Aerospace Department fit me pretty well. If I wanted to do purely science, of course, I would be in the wrong department – I shouldn’t major in engineering. But professors in the Aero department are the most amazing thing we have there. They’re very smart, they’re unique, they’re driven. Most of my learning wasn’t necessarily in class – though I learned a lot in class – but through my interaction with [my professors], and how open they are.
I find that people listen more to what I say here, and I think that’s great. As a student leader and as a research scientist, I find that there are always people that are willing to listen to you and give you feedback on what you’re doing, not only for academic matters but for scientific matters. Many times I’ve discussed the meaning of life with professors in office hours.
Aerospace engineering just has this power of creating engineers that are very unique. You learn so much because you’re learning a little bit about everything. So an aerospace engineer is good at everything: he can talk about anything.
Tell me about the project team UVEE (Underwater Vehicle for the Exploration of Europa). What’s going on with that?
So UVEE is one-semester old, and I’m trying to bring it to SEDS now. I think that the driver of UVEE is Europa. Europa is this very interesting environment – right now we have evidence that there is water inside its composition. What the models are trying to confirm is that Europa is made of rock, water, and ice, and this water being liquid, there is a very large potential for the existence of life. I started the project with Seth Burke in January. We both believe that Europa is an interesting place and Europa might be the next Mars. Right now Mars gets much more funding than Europa, and wherever the funding is, is where people are doing the science, but anyway, I don’t want to go there *laughs*.
I think part of it was to drive a project where mostly freshman and sophomores can actually think about a problem [in planetary science] that is “to create an underwater vehicle for Europa exploration.”
Ok, so you’ve done work with both Mars and Europa – which do you like better?
*laughs* You can’t answer questions like that! I think – Ok, I’m going to be very impartial here: they’re different. The kind of analysis you conduct with one or the other is completely different.
Mars was this very earthlike planet, whereas Europa is what Earth will never be, which is a place full of water! *laughs* Even though Earth’s full of water, Europa’s insanely full of water. I don’t think we should have this kind of rivalry, we should love space exploration. Ceres, Pluto, Titan, Enceladus, Europa, Neptune, Saturn, all of them have their own particularities. Each one of them is one small piece of the puzzle of the correspondence between the creation of the universe, the beginning of everything, the beginning of the solar system. Each one tells its own story, and we should listen to it.
-Interviewed by Arun Nagpal (email@example.com), Publications Co-Chair of SEDS@UM
-Edited by Ari Sandberg (firstname.lastname@example.org), Publications Co-Chair of SEDS@UM