Life Among the Martians

Dillon Dalton, a recent computer science graduate, joins the space race.


For recent Eastern graduate Dillon Dalton, not even the sky’s the limit. Dalton, a 23-year-old computer science alumnus, is currently part of a NASA team working on the Mars Sample Return project. The goal? To bring rock and atmospheric samples from the Red Planet back to Earth.

Nasa's Mars sample retriever.
NASA’s Mars sample retriever.

Dalton’s team, an elite group of seven, works specifically on the cameras that will guide a Sample-Retrieval Lander as it makes its way through Mars’ notoriously thin atmosphere. “The cameras are pretty instrumental in navigating the spacecraft,” Dalton says. “They also generate the data which give you more information on different geographical features of Mars, like its topography and map products.”

The cameras are just one part of a complex system designed to help guide the lander during its six-month collection sojourn. When completed, a capsule containing the surface stuff will be launched toward an Earth Return Orbiter circling the planet. The orbiter will then snag the samples and prepare them for their journey home. The mission will take an estimated five years. Launch is expected to happen as soon as 2028.

Dalton’s work takes place at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “We have something called the Mars Yard,” he says, “which is essentially just dirt and rocks that look like Mars, where they do testing for the different spacecraft.”

JPL is a world-renowned center of robotics, the facility where former NASA space greats such as Voyager, Curiosity and Perseverance were built. “If it is in some way robotic, JPL has had a hand in that,” Dalton says. “There’s a lot of history here.”

One piece of JPL’s history, however, is a tradition based not at all on science. “We have lucky peanuts,” Dalton explains. “It’s a tradition at JPL to have peanuts on hand when there’s something crazy going on, like a landing or launch.” Lucky peanuts, he adds, have already been passed around among his colleagues — colloquially known as “Martians” — in preparation for their lander’s mission.

Uprooting his life and moving to California has been quite the experience for Dalton, who says he’s had a “fascination with space” since childhood: “To walk into some of the clean rooms —which is where they build the spacecraft — and to see the process of things getting assembled was an incredible experience.”

Dalton says he still can’t quite believe he’s now working among scientists he once watched in documentaries. Getting on board wasn’t easy: the application process lasted two months and involved nearly 10 interviews. Undaunted, Dalton made the grade and started work in October 2022.

He credits Eastern for helping to make it happen. “I don’t think being from a smaller school was a hindrance,” Dalton says. “I had the skills and experience they were looking for.”