The news about Mars has been non-stop since NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, made its successful landing on the red planet on February 18. Equipped with better cameras than its predecessor, Curiosity, Perseverance has already sent back valuable, never-before-seen data to its operators on Earth. So far, we’ve received exceptional footage of the rover’s landing; a high-quality, panoramic view of the landing location; and the first-ever audio recording of a Martian breeze.
“For those who wonder how you land on Mars — or why it is so difficult — or how cool it would be to do so — you need look no further,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk stated in a press release. “Perseverance is just getting started, and already has provided some of the most iconic visuals in space exploration history. It reinforces the remarkable level of engineering and precision that is required to build and fly a vehicle to the Red Planet.”
The rover safely touched down in Jezero Crater after a seven-month journey through space. Its entry, descent, and landing (EDL) cameras captured real-time footage of the moment Perseverance stood solidly on Mars, which was later uploaded online by NASA.
“This video of Perseverance’s descent is the closest you can get to landing on Mars without putting on a pressure suit,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said in the release. “It should become mandatory viewing for young women and men who not only want to explore other worlds and build the spacecraft that will take them there, but also want to be part of the diverse teams achieving all the audacious goals in our future.”
Not only did they create the EDL camera system to give people a “ride of a lifetime,” explained Dave Gruel, lead engineer for Perseverance’s EDL system, but an additional mic was added to “enhance the experience, especially for visually-impaired space fans, and engage and inspire people around the world.”
The result is footage that is completely mind-blowing. “From the explosive opening of the parachute to the landing rockets’ plume sending dust and debris flying at touchdown, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring,” added Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California.
The Landing Site: Jezero Crater
Jezero Crater wasn’t picked as a landing site because it was a good place to earn some bonus points. (This isn’t Lunar Lander!)
The decision to land there came after a five-year study of 60 different areas of interest. As the scientists narrowed down potential locations, the crater eventually stood apart from the rest due to being a prime area for research into prehistoric Martian life.
Scientists believe Jezero Crater was once a lake or part of an ancient river delta thanks to an orbital NASA spectrometer called CRISM. It detected traces of clay in the crater, which can only form with water — and, if there’s water, there might be fossilized remains of ancient, microscopic life in the area.
That’s why researchers are very eager to study some soil and rock samples. Luckily, that’s Perseverance’s specialty.
Perseverance’s unique mission
Like the Martian rovers that came before it, Perseverance plays a part in helping NASA look for signs of ancient life on Mars. However, it has its own unique ability that makes it different: it can collect rock and soil samples for future study.
The rover does this thanks to a handy-dandy robotic arm. This arm comes equipped with a drill that can get to the interiors of rocks and collect them in a penlight-sized tube. It will also drill up samples of the surface of Mars’s soil and store those in tubes as well.
Perseverance has 43 sample tubes, and will pick up at least 20 samples of the environment during its mission. The tubes are hermetically sealed and, hopefully, free of contaminants from the rover itself.
Once the samples are safely stored in the tubes within the rover’s “belly,” they’ll be released on the ground in a recognizable location for retrieval.
Hopefully, after Perseverance is finished, NASA will be able to collect the samples with another mission that will send a “fetch” rover to Mars so it can pick up the cache of tubes.
Once the samples are sealed in a container, another robot can send them back into orbit, where an orbiter can pick them up and take them all the way back to Earth for study. NASA estimates this might not be until 2031 at the earliest, though. It’s an incredibly ambitious plan, but if scientists can pull it off, it would be an astounding opportunity to learn more about the red planet’s environment and history.
A friend named Ingenuity
Perseverance didn’t come to Mars alone. While the rover will be busy picking up soil and rock samples, another space-pal will carry out its own little mission. This friend is named Ingenuity, and its engineers are hoping it’ll be the first helicopter to fly on another planet.
But making a powered flight on Mars isn’t easy. The atmosphere on Mars is 99 percent denser than Earth’s, according to NASA, which requires rotor blades that are larger and can rotate faster. The temperatures are also far more extreme, with nights that dip down to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which could put some of Ingenuity’s parts at risk if things go wrong.
Ingenuity’s test flights will begin once it’s deployed from its hiding place in the belly of Perseverance. Because it can’t be remote-controlled from Earth, it has to do a number of self-preservation tasks autonomously before it’s ready for flight. It needs to keep itself warm during the frigid Martian nights, then charge itself using its solar panels. Once these steps are done, it should be ready for its first (of hopefully four) test flights in Spring 2021.
If the little helicopter is successful, it could make Earthling history as the first step towards creating more robotic, flying vehicles for reconnaissance on other planets.
“The Ingenuity team has done everything to test the helicopter on Earth, and we are looking forward to flying our experiment in the real environment at Mars,” Ingenuity project manager at JPL, MiMi Aung, stated in a release.
“We’ll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future.”
What’s next for Perseverance?
Landing safely is undoubtedly the biggest milestone for anything sent to Mars, and Perseverance will need a little bit of time before it can get settled in and started on its mission. It has to be stabilized, get its software ready, and essentially perform a “health check” on its parts and instruments. It takes a while to get all this done; each step is taken one at a time to ensure everything is absolutely ready before heading into the next phase.
“We do it very carefully,” Mars 2020 deputy project manager Jennifer Trosper explained during a news conference. “We toe-dip; we make sure that nothing goes wrong, and at the end of that is when we start the next set of checkouts where we’ll deploy the arm. We’ll do our first drive — about five meters forward and back.”
Some steps, like setting down Ingenuity and leaving the flight area, could take up to 10 Martian days. (A day — called a “sol” — on Mars is about 24 hours and 40 minutes long.) With each milestone taking up sols at a time, it could be up to a month or more before Perseverance gets a move on to collect its first sample.
Until then, the achievements to be made through Perseverance and Ingenuity are endless. The samples collected by the rover could answer longstanding questions about Mars. For example, if Mars had an environment that supported life, just like Earth, then what happened to make it so inhospitable now?
Perseverance’s mission might hold the answers — as long as things continue as successfully as they have been so far.
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