Development of “Snake-like EELS Robot” in Search of New Extraterrestrial Life – Origin of Mr. Masahiro Ono, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Japan Top News

The distance between “space” and us is rapidly approaching, with private space tourists exceeding the number of astronauts who went to space in 2021. Moreover, the universe is used everywhere in our daily lives, such as mapping applications and weather forecasts. Even so, there are still many people who think that “space is an event in a distant world, and they will never be involved in it for the rest of their lives”.

So how did the people currently working on the front lines of space come into contact with space and begin to live from it? In this series, “The Origins of the ‘Space Bits’ Unlocking the Future of Humanity”, we’ll give clues that will change the way you view space by revealing the origins of ‘space aliens’ (bitos ) who are active in various fields. the fields.

Masahiro Ono, researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

Masahiro Ono, researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

Masahiro Ono, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), will be the best drummer. Why are you fascinated by space? What kind of mission are you trying to accomplish at JPL? I interviewed him online, who lives in the United States.

“Voyager 2” which shocked me when I was 6 years old

——First, please tell us how you are currently involved in space.

I work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and am currently involved in two main projects. The first is the rover currently on Mars. I check data coming in from Mars, create commands and run the rover.

The second is the development of a snake-like robot called EELS. Saturn has a moon called Enceladus with a diameter of about 500 kilometers and a surface covered in ice. And since there are cracks in the ice, I thought that if a snake-like robot could descend through these cracks, I might be able to reach the sea.

It’s still in the research stage right now, and even if it comes to fruition, it’ll likely be in the 2040s or beyond. The team size is around 50 people, and I’m the leader. The other day, I rented a local ice rink from late night until early morning to conduct an experiment (of a prototype).

——The story of the snake-like robot is thrilling. So, Mr. Ono, could you go back to how you first encountered space and when you started wanting to get involved in space?

The first was an astronomical telescope that my father bought me when I was 5 years old (Mr. Ono was born in 1982 and is 39 years old). My dad was also in the astronomy department when he was a student, so I think he was interested in the stars. I used to look at the moon and planets through a telescope, and even as a kid it was interesting. Of course, I knew about the small craters on the moon and the rings of Saturn, but seeing the reality is completely different. These days, you can easily find beautiful images just on Google, but there’s still an undeniable excitement to looking through the lens.

After going through this when I was 5, “Voyager 2” became big news when I was 6. Almost nothing was known about Neptune back then, but every day we learn more and more new things as the spacecraft gets closer. In just a few weeks, the knowledge of humanity will be more and more updated. It was great to be able to experience this excitement in real time.

——So, at 6 years old, you have already been in space?

However, it’s not like there’s a straight line (to the universe) from there. The other day when I went back to my parents in Japan, my mother dug up an album of my childhood drawings and an anthology. Also, when I was in elementary school, there was a cartoon about the theory of relativity in the library, and there was a time when I was addicted to Einstein and physics. Of course, I got into things like the Mini 4WD (like all my kids).

Mr. Ono says he was addicted not only to space but also to trains.

Mr. Ono says he was addicted not only to space but also to trains.

When I was in college, I was addicted to computers. Self-learning programming language. Also, it was the dawn of the internet, so it was very exciting to be able to communicate with people all over the world.

Launched a simple satellite into the desert as a college student

——From here you approach space again.

Well, when it came time to choose a university, when I thought about what I wanted to do, I thought, of course, about space. So I joined the aerospace engineering department of the University of Tokyo. In college, I joined Nakasuka’s lab, but luckily the time was right to launch the world’s first CubeSat (small artificial satellite).

So, I applied for volunteers, got a job as a CubeSat operator, stayed in the training room for days and was responsible for the morning shift. When you point the antenna towards the sky, you can hear a sound coming from outer space. It is a living experience. I am now in communication with the universe.

Also, Nakasuka’s lab was also developing the next satellite, but I was very young then, so I lined up the chairs in the lab at night and slept on them. After programming, I had trouble soldering and destroyed many boards. It was a good engineering experience.

So when I was in fourth grade, we took a simple satellite we had developed called “Cansat” to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada and launched it to an altitude of several miles using a amateur rocket.

ARLISS at Nakasuka Lab (Launch of Cansat)

ARLISS at Nakasuka Lab (Launch of Cansat)

I was the leader of the team at that time, but it was also interesting. The experiment itself was approximately 20% successful and 80% unsuccessful. I spared no time to sleep with my friends, I did, took it to the States with everyone and launched a rocket out of the desert.

——It must have been a great experience.

After that, I studied abroad at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the United States. When I flew the simple satellite, I didn’t really want to go to the United States, but my eldest, who was four years older than me, was studying at MIT. I decided to study abroad from scratch. By the way, he is now in charge of Starship landings at SpaceX.

At 30, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory of “meritocracy”

——After launching simple satellites and studying in the United States at university, will you enter the space industry as an active adult?

I agree. However, there was a time when I almost gave up on my dream while studying abroad. There are many reasons, but one of the biggest is that since I was little I always called it “universe”, but there was a time when it seemed like other people were doing something better than me. The girlfriend I was dating at the time was working on international support to reduce the number of starving children. .

There was a time when I almost lost my passion for space, but it was just in time for Naoko Yamazaki’s space shuttle launch. When I saw the launch moment in front of me, I was so excited that I cried tears and thought, “After all, I only have space.” So I overcame my hesitation and decided that if I wanted to go I would go to JPL, the company that made Voyager, because I had admired Voyager for a long time.

In fact, even though I received it at first, it fell off. I returned to Japan with my shattered dreams and worked as an assistant professor at Keio University for about a year. However, before returning to Japan, I had the opportunity to intern at JPL, so I thought it was my last chance and worked hard to achieve results.

——How old was Ono-san at that time?

My 30th birthday was celebrated by Keio students, so I was 30 at the time.

—— When did you join JPL?

He is over 9 years old.

——So you have been at JPL for almost ten years. Please tell us about your progress over the past nine years.

There were many things. JPL is a very competitive organization and work is not arbitrarily assigned. For example, if you allocate 50:25:25% of your resources to three projects, A, B, and C, your salary will come out of the project budget in the same ratio. So there must always be a project that will engage us 100% of our time.

Of course, it’s not like everyone is going to quit because they don’t have a job.

Currently working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

Currently working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

I’m a software enthusiast, like programming, and I’m confident in my skills, but when I come here, there are a lot of amazing programmers that can’t compete. I don’t know what to say, (Dragon Ball, for example) I only trained under Kame Sennin, but when I went to Tenkaichi Budōkai, it was all the more amazing guys (laughs). )

So if you compete in programming, you can’t win, so I thought I should get a budget and create a product on the creative side. After failing several times, in the second or third year, I was able to achieve the presence I was aiming for, even if the amount was small, and after that, I was able to earn quite a lot of money.

——It’s not a safe and secure world once you’re inside an organization. I have to call on myself more and more.

I agree. When I first joined the company I was hired and looking for a job, but now, nine years later, I’m in a position to manage a project, so I’m competing for excellent human resources within the company. In addition, there is also the withdrawal of human resources from private space companies, so it is also a struggle, isn’t it?

(This sequence is “UchuBizcan be viewed at

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