A replica of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover shown during a press conference ahead of the launch of an Atlas V rocket carrying the rover, at Cape Canaveral, Florida. July 29, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Joe Skipper.
NASA is going to send its next rover to Mars on July 30 – if everything goes to plan. The rover has been named ‘Perseverance’ by Alexander Mather, a 13-year-old student from Virginia, and picked by NASA from over 28,000 entries.
The Perseverance mission differs from previous ones in the fact that earlier, rovers were sent to determine if Mars has habitable conditions more broadly whereas this one aims to look for signs of historical microbial life. As such, it marks the first time NASA has designed a rover to conduct experiments related to astrobiology on Mars.
The rover is the size of an SUV, and in terms of its capabilities will succeed the Curiosity rover, a roaming laboratory that has yielded significant scientific returns since it was landed on Mars on August 6, 2012.
The launch window for lift-off extends from July 30 to August 15; on July 30, a two-hour launch window first opens at 5:20 pm IST. If weather conditions are not favourable this Thursday, the mission will still have suitable launch opportunities until August 15. However, if none of them work out, NASA will then have to wait until August 2022 for the next set of windows to open up.
(Editor’s note, July 30, 2020, 5:33 pm: The launch vehicle has successfully launched the Persevere mission into Earth orbit.)
This year, NASA’s mission is the third to Mars, following the UAE’s Hope and China’s Tianwen-1 missions earlier this month.
The rover is scheduled be launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V-541 rocket from Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Atlas V-541 is a two-stage launch expendable launch vehicle.
The Perseverance mission will have to travel for seven months to reach the Red Planet, where it will land inside the Jezero crater. If the journey sticks to the schedule, the landing event will happen on February 18, 2021, at 3:30 pm IST. This crater earlier used to be filled with water, and instruments on the rover will examine it for signs of ancient microbial life.
Interestingly, Perseverance carries a silicon chip with the names of 10.9 million people who had registered themselves plus a tribute plate to the medical community for their efforts during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. NASA is also sending a piece of an astronaut’s helmet and four kinds of spacesuit fabrics for the reference of astronauts who may visit Mars in future.
The mission has four science goals on Mars. The first is to determine whether life ever existed on Mars, by looking for signatures of biological life or activity. The second involves characterising Mars’s climate and searching for evidence for whether the Martian environment was habitable at any point in history. Third, the mission will characterise the geology of Mars; specifically, the rover will study rock records to understand geological processes that might have been responsible for creating and modifying the Martian crust. The fourth goal is to prepare for human exploration by analysing existing environmental conditions and using natural resources in the planet’s atmosphere, through key technologies, to devise life support and fuel.
After it has landed, the rover will drill the rock, and obtain and store some promising rock core samples that could be transferred to a future mission that could then transport the samples for analysis on Earth. The Martian atmosphere is 95.32% carbon dioxide, and the rover will also conduct experiments to extract oxygen from carbon-dioxide with a view to helping subsequent missions set up life-support systems.
The rover’s wheels are more durable than those of its predecessors: they are thicker, are made of a higher grade of aluminium and have a modified shape for better performance. The rover’s microphones will track and record the sounds of Mars during its descent.
The rover’s robotic arm is equipped with many scientific instruments. Specifically, it will carry 23 cameras: nine engineering cameras, seven science cameras and seven entry, descent and landing cameras. The engineering cameras will position tools on the robotic arm, help with navigation, look for potential hazards and take pictures of the top of a sample tube consisting of collected samples before it is sealed.
Among the science cameras are SHERLOC and WATSON. SHERLOC – short for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals – is, like its eponym, a detective. It will hunt for signs of ancient life with help from WATSON, which is short for Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering. SHERLOC uses spectrometers and a laser, plus a micro-camera that will take extra-close-up pictures of areas to be studied, and will search for potential organic compounds, minerals and and bio-signatures altered by water environments. WATSON will capture larger context images and provide views of the fine-scale textures and structures in Martian rocks.
Three other state-of-the-art tools and instruments are MEDA, RIFMAX and MOXIE. MEDA will measure temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity, dust size and shape. RIFMAX will help obtain centimetre-scale resolution of geological structures of the subsurface. MOXIE, or the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment, will demonstrate the production of oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian air. If this experiment succeeds, future astronauts could also use it to combust fuel to lift-off from Mars.
While both Curiosity and Perseverance have similar dimensions, Perseverance is 278 kg heavier. Its principal upgrade is the rock-core-sampling system, which will have to seal and store the samples to protect any potentially valuable information.
The setup is equipped with five witness tubes meant to catch contaminants during drilling and capture gas released from the rover, chemical remnants from the landing system or any other Earthly materials that may have somehow made it to Mars. This is very important to prevent contamination of samples. In future, NASA plans to launch a mini-rocket that could retrieve these samples and return them to Earth using another probe.
Perseverance will be accompanied by a small helicopter drone named Ingenuity. It will provide engineers on Earth with aerial images as well as will demonstrate the possibility of flight on Mars. The resolution of its images will be 10-times higher than those taken by satellites in Mars orbit. Ingenuity will also complete at least five flights during its 30-day mission, each for a maximum of three minutes.
All together, this mission is expected to help us better understand Mars, and is being counted as one of the first steps towards sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.
Radifah Kabir is a B. Tech. student studying in Assam.