Milwaukee native part of NASA's Mars rover mission

NASA's Perseverance rover beamed new images back to Earth from Mars on Friday, Feb. 19. Its mission: Search for evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet.

A Milwaukee native and proud graduate of Riverside High School and UW-Milwaukee is excited to begin the work, working on the Perseverance mission.

"For me, it was always about finding a pathway, in my mind, because that was something that I wanted to do. But I had no idea how I would get there," said Darian Dixon.

Now, Dixon is there. The Mastcam-Z data management lead, he is part of a team of scientists working on the Mars mission.

The 28-year-old Milwaukee native's love of the solar system was nurtured by his mom when he was young. He later graduated from UW-Milwaukee with a geosciences degree and from Western Washington University with a master's in planetary science.

"I’m excited. I woke up this morning ready to see whatever I’m going to see," Dixon said.

Darian Dixon

Dixon, who now lives in California, leads the team operating two high-powered cameras which can scan and zoom-in on the Martian surface. It sends back remarkable pictures, similar to those from the Curiosity mission he was also a part of. But that's not all.

The technology can also determine the chemical composition of rocks. It directs geologists where to point the rover, nicknamed "Percy," for further exploration.

And if there is ancient life...

"Ultimately, that’s another little bit of evidence that gives us clues to the history of Mars," Dixon said.

An illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover landing safely on Mars. Hundreds of critical events must execute perfectly and exactly on time for the rover to land safely on Feb. 18, 2021. (Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Thursday's entry, descent and landing kept Dixon on pins and needles.

"I was so nervous. We went to Krispy Kreme, got doughnuts, and I think I stress ate like six doughnuts in about five minutes," said Dixon.

If something went wrong, years of work would be lost. In the end, the landing team pulled off the feat without a hitch.

"That put us in a great spot. And now we’re ready to do work," Dixon said.

Dixon is now living on Mars time for the next 90 days, or "sols," which are about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth. He and countless others are slowly getting Percy prepped for its mission.

"This is your mission, we’re doing this on Mars, on behalf of humanity, and on behalf of everyone. So be excited, follow along. Be happy that we’re up there doing these incredible things," said Dixon.

Dixon wouldn't have it any other way. From helping select Percy's landing site several years ago to now operating the rover's camera.

"It was hard. Especially being on Mars time," Dixon said. "Once work’s over, I’m going to be chugging coffee and doing whatever it takes to stay up until like 5 (in the morning)."

Darian Dixon

That's how Dixon said he ended up where he is now -- a dream job of exploring space. He has a lot of pride in what he does and knows that opportunities in the STEM fields don't come easily for people of color.

"Be on the lookout for opportunities around you and to grab onto them," said Dixon.

"Every day, when I do this work, when I log in and I start a shift – that’s at the forefront of my mind. I’m putting on for my city. I'm representing my city, for my people," Dixon said. "I have obligations to be here, and show that I can do this, and to put my face and my color in these spaces. That’s extremely important to me. It’s everything."

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Dixon says grit and perseverance in the face of adversity are what brought him to this point, searching for geological evidence of ancient life millions of miles away.

"It’s always on my mind. It’s not just the science, it’s not just doing stuff on Mars, it’s being a part of it and showing that there are Black people in the country, over, and especially in Milwaukee that are brilliant, smart, eager, and we’re ready to take opportunities," said Dixon.

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