NASA’s new Mars rover, which launched Thursday morning, carries a machine that will produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in Mars’ thin atmosphere.
The experimental device, known as MOXIE, could help pave the way for human exploration of Mars.
NASA’s Perseverance Mars roverlaunched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday morning, carrying a host of cutting-edge technology including high-definition video equipment and the first interplanetary helicopter.
Many of the tools are designed as experimental steps toward human exploration of the red planet. Crucially, Perseverance is equipped with a device called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE: an attempt to produce oxygen on a planet where it makes up less than .2% of the atmosphere.
Oxygen is a cumbersome payload on
missions. It takes up a lot of room, and it’s very unlikely that astronauts could bring enough of it to Mars for humans to breathe there, let alone to fuel spaceships for the long journey home. Advertisement
That’s the problem MOXIE is looking to solve. The car-battery-sized robot is a roughly 1% scale model of the device scientists hope to one day send to Mars, perhaps in the 2030s.
Like a tree, MOXIE works by taking in carbon dioxide, though it’s designed specifically for the thin Martian atmosphere. It then electrochemically splits the molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide, and combines the oxygen molecules into O2. It analyzes the O2 for purity, shooting for about 99.6% O2. Then it releases both the breathable oxygen and the carbon monoxide back into the planet’s atmosphere. Future scaled-up devices, however, would store the oxygen produced in tanks for eventual use by humans and rockets.
The toxicity of the carbon monoxide produced isn’t a worry, according to Michael Hecht, a principal investigator for MOXIE. The gas reenters the Martian atmosphere but won’t alter it very much.
“If you release the carbon monoxide into the Mars atmosphere, eventually it will combine with a very small amount of residual oxygen that’s there and turn back into carbon dioxide,” Hecht previously told Business Insider.
For that reason, the carbon monoxide also wouldn’t hinder a potential biosphere on Mars — a closed, engineered environment where Earthly life could thrive.Advertisement
Because MOXIE is a small proof-of-concept experiment, it won’t produce much oxygen — if all goes well, it should be producing about 10 grams per hour, which is roughly the amount of oxygen in 1.2 cubic feet of Earth air. For context, humans need about 19 cubic feet of air per day.
MOXIE will test its capabilities by producing oxygen in one-hour increments intermittently throughout the duration of Perseverance’s mission, according to NASA. The device should start working soon after the rover lands on February 18, 2021.
Advanced spacesuit designer Amy Ross of NASA’s Johnson Space Center stands with the Z-2, a prototype spacesuit. Credit: NASA
In a Q&A, spacesuit designer Amy Ross explains how five samples, including a piece of helmet visor, will be tested aboard the rover, which was launched on July 30.
NASA is preparing to send the first woman and next man to the Moon, part of a larger strategy to send the first astronauts to the surface of Mars. But before they get there, they’ll be faced with a critical question: What should they wear on Mars, where the thin atmosphere allows more radiation from the Sun and cosmic rays to reach the ground?
Amy Ross is looking for answers. An advanced spacesuit designer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, she’s developing new suits for the Moon and Mars. So Ross is eagerly awaiting this summer’s launch of the Perseverance Mars rover, which will carry the first samples of spacesuit material ever sent to the Red Planet.
While the rover explores Jezero Crater, collecting rock and soil samples for future return to Earth, five small pieces of spacesuit material will be studied by an instrument aboard Perseverance called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals). The materials, including a piece of helmet visor, are embedded alongside a fragment of a Martian meteorite in SHERLOC’s calibration target. That’s what scientists use to make sure an instrument’s settings are correct, comparing readings on Mars to base-level readings they got on Earth.
Read on as Ross shares insights into the materials chosen and the differences between suits designed for the Moon and those for Mars. More information about SHERLOC and the rover’s science can be found here.
This graphic shows an illustration of a prototype astronaut suit, left, along with suit samples included in the calibration target, lower right, belonging to the SHERLOC instrument aboard the Perseverance rover. They’ll be observed to see how they hold up in the intense radiation of the Martian surface. Credit: NASA
Why were these particular materials on SHERLOC’s calibration target selected?
Ross: The materials we’re poking at the most are meant to be on the outer layer of a suit, since these will be exposed to the most radiation. There’s ortho-fabric, something we have a lot of experience using on the outside of spacesuits. That’s three materials in one: It includes Nomex, a flame-resistant material found in firefighter outfits; Gore-Tex, which is waterproof but breathable; and Kevlar, which has been used in bulletproof vests.
We are also testing a sample of Vectran on its own, which we currently use for the palms of spacesuit gloves. It’s cut-resistant, which is useful on the International Space Station: Micrometeoroids strike handrails outside the station, creating pits with sharp edges that can cut gloves.
We included a sample of Teflon, which we’ve used in spacesuits for a long time as part of astronaut glove gauntlets and the backs of gloves. Just like a nonstick pan, it’s slippery, and it’s harder to catch and tear a fabric if it’s slick. We also included a sample of Teflon with a dust-resistant coating.
Finally, there’s a piece of polycarbonate, which we use for helmet bubbles and visors because it helps reduce ultraviolet light. A nice thing about it is it doesn’t shatter. If impacted, it bends rather than breaks and still has good optical properties.
How will SHERLOC check the samples?
Ross: On Mars, radiation will break down the chemical composition of the materials, weakening their tensile strength. We want to figure out how long these materials will last. Do we need to develop new materials, or will these hang in there?
SHERLOC can get the spectra, or composition, of rocks the mission’s scientists want to study. It can do the same thing for these spacesuit materials. We’ve already tested them on Earth, bathing samples in radiation and then analyzing their spectra. The results of those tests, conducted in ultraviolet vacuum chambers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, will be compared to what we see on Mars.
Will Martian dust be a challenge?
Ross: Sure, it’s an engineering challenge, but there’s no reason we can’t design things to operate in dust. We’re already developing things like seals that keep dust out of our bearings. Spacesuits have bearings at the shoulders, wrists, hip, upper thighs, and ankles. They all give an astronaut mobility for walking, kneeling, and other movements you’d need to get up close to rocks or maintain a habitat.
Remember, our suits inflate to over 4 pounds per square inch of pressure. That’s not a crazy amount of pressure, but it’s pretty stiff. When you put a human inside a balloon and ask them to move, they’ll have trouble. It’s as tight as the head of a drum. So we need to seal off the bearings so dust doesn’t gunk them up.
We are looking for other ways to protect the suit from Martian dust over a long-duration mission. We know that a coated or film material will be better than a woven material that has space between the woven yarns. The two Teflon samples let us look at that as well as the performance of the dust-resistant coating.
How much would spacesuit design differ between the space station, the Moon, and Mars?
Ross: Spacesuit design depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing. The ISS suit is designed specifically for microgravity. If you go on a spacewalk, you’re not really walking; you use your hands everywhere. Your lower torso is just used as a stable platform for your upper body. The suit is also exposed to two environmental sources of degradation: solar radiation and atomic oxygen. Atomic oxygen is different from the oxygen we breathe. It’s very reactive and can degrade spacesuit materials.
The Moon doesn’t have the atomic oxygen problem but is worse than Mars in terms of radiation. You’re pretty close to the Sun and have no atmosphere to scatter the ultraviolet radiation like you do on Mars. The Moon is a big testbed for the Artemis program. The environments of the Moon and Mars aren’t exactly the same, but the durability challenges — materials exposed over long periods of time at low pressures in a dusty environment — are similar.
On Mars, you’re farther from the Sun, and you have at least a little atmosphere to scatter the UV. But that’s when the duration of exposure starts to get you. You have to plan on being exposed on the surface most of the time. Mars spacesuits will be more like ones we use for the Moon and less like those for the ISS. I’m trying to make the Moon suit as much like the Mars suit as possible.
More About the Mission
Perseverance is a robotic scientist that weighs just under 2,300 pounds (1,043 kilograms). The rover’s astrobiology mission will search for signs of past microbial life. It will characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. Perseverance launched on July 30, 2020 and will land at Mars’ Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021.
A division of Caltech, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. The mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.
CAPE CANAVERAL: Nasa’s next-generation Mars rover Perseverance blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on Thursday atop an Atlas 5 rocket on a $2.4 billion mission to search for traces of potential past life on Earth’s planetary neighbour.
The robotic rover — a car-sized six-wheeled vehicle carrying seven scientific instruments — also is scheduled to deploy a small helicopter on Mars and try out equipment for future human missions to the fourth planet from the sun. Its arrival at Mars is planned for Feb 18 at the site of an ancient river delta.
It soared into the sky from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:50am under clear, sunny and warm conditions carried by an Atlas 5 rocket from the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance. The launch took place after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) facility in Pasadena, California, where its mission engineers were located was rattled by an earthquake.
JPL mission controllers established its first communication signal with the spacecraft some 90 minutes after liftoff, an affirmation that prompted applause and cheers in the California control room.
This marked NASA’s ninth journey to the Martian surface.
“It’s really kind of a key of a whole bunch of new research that we’re doing that is focused on the question … is there life out there?” the space agency’s science division chief Thomas Zurbuchen said on a NASA live stream after the launch.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Mike Watkins quipped about the California quake: “It was just the Earth being excited about going to Mars. It was a very minor event. Everything’s fine, and we’re on our way to Mars.”
Perseverance is due to land at the base of an 820-foot-deep crater called Jezero, site of a former lake and water system from 3.5 billion years ago that scientists suspect could bear evidence of potential past microbial life.
Scientists have long debated whether Mars — once a much more hospitable place than it is today — ever harboured life. Water is considered a key ingredient for life, and Mars billions of years ago had lots of it on the surface before the planet became a harsh and desolate outpost.
According to a late night report, the spaceship developed technical problems hours into the flight and was running on essential systems only, the agency said.
When a vessel enters safe mode, it shuts down all but essential systems until it receives new commands from mission control. “Right now, the Mars 2020 mission is completing a full health assessment on the spacecraft and is working to return the spacecraft to a nominal configuration for its journey to Mars,” added Nasa.
NASA is celebrating the launch of its most advanced Mars rover ever today (July 30), even as engineers tackle a glitch that left the spacecraft in a protective “safe mode” shortly after liftoff.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover launched toward the Red Planet at 7:50 a.m. EDT (1150 GMT), riding an Atlas V rocket into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rover experienced minor communications and temperature glitches after launch, but the issues aren’t expected to harm the mission as a whole, NASA officials said.
“It was an amazing launch, right on time,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a post-launch news conference. “I think we’re in great shape. It was a great day for NASA.”
Shortly after the conference, NASA confirmed that Perseverance slipped into “safe mode” due to an unexpected temperature difference.
“Data indicate the spacecraft had entered a state known as safe mode, likely because a part of the spacecraft was a little colder than expected while Mars 2020 was in Earth’s shadow,” NASA officials said in a statement. “All temperatures are now nominal and the spacecraft is out of Earth’s shadow.”
During today’s post-launch news conference, the team received word that one issue, a lingering communications issue, was fixed. Within the first few hours after launch, although mission personnel could pick up the signal the spacecraft was sending home, it wasn’t being processed correctly.
However, that situation didn’t cause much concern, Matt Wallace, deputy project manager for Mars 2020 with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, said during the briefing. The miscommunication was caused by the fact that NASA relies on a system called the Deep Space Network to communicate with Perseverance even soon after launch, when the spacecraft isn’t yet all that deep into space.
And, because the Deep Space Network is made up of massive antennas equipped with super sensitive receivers, the signal from a spacecraft so close to the network can end up blasting the system, like someone screaming directly into your ear. Engineers needed to tweak the network settings in order to actually process the information coming from the spacecraft.
“Just as the administrator was speaking, I did just get a text that we were able to lock up on that telemetry,” Wallace said. “All the indications that we have — and we have quite a few — are that the spacecraft is just fine.”
NASA’s Curiosity rover faced a similar issue during its launch in 2011, Wallace said. “It’s something that we’ve seen before with other Mars missions,” Bridenstine said. “This is not unusual. Everything is going according to plan.”
Perseverance’s ‘safe mode’ explained
The mission team revealed a second post-launch hiccup shortly later in the news conference: Perseverance went into safe mode.
When the spacecraft got a little colder than expected passing through Earth’s shadow, it automatically put itself into that state, according to the NASA statement, although the spacecraft’s temperature quickly bounced back and isn’t concerning the team.
Wallace emphasized that such a status shouldn’t harm the mission as a whole. Safe mode is, as the name implies, designed to be safe for the spacecraft to be in right now.
“The spacecraft is happy there,” Wallace said. “The team is working through that telemetry, they’re going to look to the rest of the spacecraft health. So far, everything I’ve seen looks good.”
Later, Wallace told Space.com that the Perseverance mission team had traced the the temperature issue to the system that uses freon to keep the rover’s nuclear battery cool.
Because Perserverance’s launch carried it into Earth’s shadow, it led to colder than expected temperatures in the cooling system, as compared to a launch in uninterrupted sunlight, Wallace told Space.com. When NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has a similar nuclear battery, launched in 2011, it was always in daylight and did not experience the issue, he added.
“Unfortunately, our analysis is never really perfect,” Wallace added. “Curiosity didn’t have an eclipse in its flight trajectory so we didn’t have flight data to know what was going to happen.”
“The spacecraft was never in jeopardy,” he continued. “Our philosophy is to be overly conservative on the parameters because we’d much rather trigger a safing event we didn’t need, than miss a safing event we do need.”
The team will continue to analyze the telemetry data that the vehicle has sent so far and double check that this is indeed the hiccup. Once that is complete, the team can put the rover back in an operational status.
Wallace said he expects for the spacecraft to return to normal operations mode tomorrow (July 31). But the team is not in any rush and are taking their time to carefully review all the data.
Perseverance is scheduled to fly straight and steady for the next at least two weeks, anyway, he said, and so the team has time to get the spacecraft back into normal operating mode before the first necessary trajectory adjustment of its journey.
A gorgeous launch
The launch itself went smoothly, with an unusually quiet countdown in mission control rooms, despite an earthquake that rattled southern California, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about 20 minutes before the rocket fired in Florida.
Today’s liftoff marked an important victory for the agency, which worried that measures imposed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus pandemic might slow launch preparations enough that Perseverance might miss its three-week window for a launch, which is dependent on orbital trajectories.
Another comparable opportunity wouldn’t come again until 2022; if that 26-month delay had occurred, it would have cost the agency an extra $500 million, according to Bridenstine, on top of an already difficult mission.
“[It was] adversity all along the way, but this is true for any project of this nature,” Bridenstine said of struggles before the pandemic, which included a cracked heat shield and the late addition of a complicated ride-along helicopter. “Then you put on top of that the coronavirus … I’m not gonna lie, it’s a challenge. It’s very stressful. But look, the teams made it happen.”
But, despite earlier delays that pushed the launch more than a week into its window, the spacecraft blasted off during its first shot of its first countdown.
“It was truly a team effort. And in every single case, everyone stood up and said, ‘Yes, we want to do what we can to help,'” Lori Glaze, director of the agency’s planetary science division, said. “Somehow, we made it through this.”
Now, the spacecraft and its human team back on Earth need to make it through a seven-month journey in deep space to reach the Red Planet. Once the spacecraft arrives at Mars, it will undergo the notoriously perilous process of entry, descent and landing.
That process will unfold on Feb. 18, 2021.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:54 p.m. EDT to include new comments from NASA’s Matt Wallace on the Perseverance rover’s safe mode event. Space.com contributor Amy Thompson contributed to this report from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Email Meghan Bartels at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow uson Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — With eight successful Mars landings, NASA is upping the ante with its newest rover.
The spacecraft Perseverance — set for liftoff this week — is NASA’s brawniest and brainiest Martian rover yet.
It sports the latest landing tech, plus the most cameras and microphones ever assembled to capture the sights and sounds of Mars. Its super-sanitized sample return tubes — for rocks that could hold evidence of past Martian life — are the cleanest items ever bound for space. A helicopter is even tagging along for an otherworldly test flight.
This summer’s third and final mission to Mars — after the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter and China’s Quest for Heavenly Truth orbiter-rover combo — begins with a launch scheduled for Thursday morning from Cape Canaveral. Like the other spacecraft, Perseverance should reach the red planet next February following a journey spanning seven months and more than 300 million miles (480 million kilometers).
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine doesn’t see it as a competition. “But certainly we welcome more explorers to deliver more science than ever before,” he said following a launch review Monday, “and we look forward to seeing what it is that they’re able to discover.”
Here’s a peek at Perseverance:
PERSEVERANCE VS. CURIOSITY:
The six-wheeled, car-sized Perseverance is a copycat of NASA’s Curiosity rover, prowling Mars since 2012, but with more upgrades and bulk. Its 7-foot (2-meter) robotic arm has a stronger grip and bigger drill for collecting rock samples, and it’s packed with 23 cameras, most of them in color, plus two more on Ingenuity, the hitchhiking helicopter. The cameras will provide the first glimpse of a parachute billowing open at Mars, with two microphones letting Earthlings eavesdrop for the first time. Once home to a river delta and lake, Jezero Crater is NASA’s riskiest Martian landing site yet because of boulders and cliffs, hopefully avoided by the spacecraft’s self-navigating systems. Perseverance has more self-driving capability, too, so it can cover more ground than Curiosity. The enhancements make for a higher mission price tag: nearly $3 billion.
Perseverance will drill into rocks most likely to hold signs of ancient life and stash the collection on the ground to await a future rover. Forty-three sample tubes are on board this rover, each one meticulously scrubbed and baked to remove Earthly microbes. NASA wants to avoid introducing organic molecules from Earth to the returning Martian samples. Each tube can hold one-half ounce (15 grams) of core samples, and the goal is to gather about a pound (0.5 kilogram) altogether for return to Earth. NASA hopes to launch the pickup mission in 2026 and get the samples back on Earth by 2031 — at the soonest.
The 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter, Ingenuity, will travel to Mars clutching the rover’s belly and, a few months after touchdown, attempt to fly solo. Once dropping onto the Martian surface, Ingenuity will start out like a baby bird, rising 10 feet (3 meters) into the planet’s extremely thin atmosphere and flying forward up to 6 feet (2 meters). With each attempt, it will try to go a little higher and farther. “It really is like the Wright brothers’ moment,” said project manager MiMi Aung. She has one month to squeeze in as many helicopter hops as possible before the rover moves on to more pressing geologic work. The future could see next-generation helicopters scouting out distant Martian territory for astronauts or even robots.
Besides the helicopter, Perseverance carries other experiments that could directly benefit astronauts at Mars. An instrument the size of a car battery will covert atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen, an essential ingredient for rocket propellant and breathing systems. Another instrument, zapping rocks with lasers to identify organic molecules and minerals, carries samples of spacesuit material. NASA wants to see how the fabrics withstand the harsh Martian environment. It will be the 2030s at best, according to NASA, before astronauts venture to Mars.
A couple Martian meteorites are finally headed home, or at least slivers of them to be used as calibration targets by laser-shooting instruments aboard Perseverance. Other cool stowaways: silicon chips bearing the names of nearly 11 million people who signed up, as well as a small plate showing Earth and Mars on opposite sides of the sun with the message “explore as one” in Morse code tucked into the solar rays. There’s also a plaque paying tribute to medical workers on the pandemic’s front lines. The coronavirus is preventing hundreds of scientists and other team members from traveling to Cape Canaveral for the launch.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
NASA is sending its Curiosity rover on a journey to a new area of Mount Sharp, the massive peak that sits in the center of the Gale Crater.
The journey is short by Earth standards at just over a mile, but it’ll be a big accomplishment for the aging robot.
When the rover arrives at its next destination it will investigate the presence of salts that may indicate ancient lakes once dominated the region.
Summer here on Earth means spending time outdoors, maybe a dip in the pool every now and then, and of course the ritual of traveling great distances in our vehicles. NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has spent over a year hanging out around an area of the colossal Mount Sharp known as the clay-bearing unit, and it’s ready to make a move of its own.
In a new blog post declaring a “summer road trip” for Curiosity, NASA explains that the rover will spend a considerable amount of time forging a new path to a location that will allow it to scale a new area of the colossal Martian mountain. The trip will only put around a mile on Curiosity’s odometer, but that’s no small feat for a robot exploring another planet.
Mount Sharp is a towering structure that sits in the middle of a huge crater. The mountain stands some three miles high, and it’s made up of layers of material that slowly but surely piled up to create what we see today. This is actually incredibly useful for researchers, as the mountain acts as something of a timeline for Mars, revealing things about what Mars was like when each layer was building up.
As it travels to its new destination, the rover will do its best to navigate around hazards. NASA recently launched a really cool program that allowed science fans to help the rover decide what areas of the Martian surface were dangerous and what kinds of terrain would be suitable for traveling over. The rover takes commands from its handlers back on Earth, but it still has to try to make good decisions on the fly as well. The data NASA gathered helps to ensure the robot knows what kind of terrain is safe.
“Curiosity can’t drive entirely without humans in the loop,” Matt Gildner, rover driver and member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement. “But it does have the ability to make simple decisions along the way to avoid large rocks or risky terrain. It stops if it doesn’t have enough information to complete a drive on its own.”
The rover’s goal is to eventually make it to an area of Mount Sharp known as the “sulfate-bearing unit.” As the name suggests, this area appears to be rich in sulfates, or salts, which may indicate the presence of water long ago that has since evaporated and left only the minerals behind.
Mike Wehner has reported on technology and video games for the past decade, covering breaking news and trends in VR, wearables, smartphones, and future tech.
Most recently, Mike served as Tech Editor at The Daily Dot, and has been featured in USA Today, Time.com, and countless other web and print outlets. His love of
reporting is second only to his gaming addiction.
As the name implies, here at Hackaday we strive to bring you interesting projects every single day. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a project only gets one day to grace these storied pages. Quite the opposite, in fact. We’re always happy to revisit a project and find out how far it’s evolved since we last crossed paths with it, especially when the creators themselves reach out to give us an update.
Which is exactly what happened when [Jakob Krantz] recently wrote in to get us up to speed on this incredible open source rover project. We first saw this 3D printed Curiosity inspired robot a little less than a year ago, and at that point it was essentially just a big box with the distinctive NASA rocker-bogie suspension bolted on. Now it not only looks a lot closer to the Martian rovers that inspired it, but it’s also learned a number of new tricks that really take this project to the next level.
The articulated head and grabber arm don’t just help sell the Curiosity look, they’re actually functional. [Jakob] notes that he doesn’t have kinematics integrated yet, so moving the arm around is more for show than practical application, but in the future it should be able to reach out and grab objects. With the new cameras in the head, he’ll even be able to get a first person view of what he’s picking up.
Last year [Jakob] was using a standard RC transmitter to drive the rover around, but he’s since put together a custom controller that’s truly a thing of beauty. It uses an ESP32 and LoRa module to communicate with matching hardware inside the rover, as well as a smartphone clipped onto the top that’s displaying telemetry and video over WiFi. The controller is actually its own separate project, so even if you aren’t in the market for a scaled down Mars rover, its controller could come in handy for your next robotics project.
This isn’t the first delay. NASA had pushed back the Mars 2020 takeoff from its original July 17th date to the 22nd after a problem with encapsulating the spacecraft.
While there’s only so much time left for the mission to start, the patience is easy to understand. NASA has been developing Perseverance and the Mars 2020 mission for years, and many pieces need to come together for the expedition to be a success. It’s an important mission, too, as it could shed light on the possibility of past life on Mars, the planet’s geological history and even the possibility of returning samples to Earth.
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NASA’s next Mars rover is in the home stretch now.
The launch of NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance, the life-hunting, sample-caching Red Planet explorer, is just a month away. The car-size robot is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during a window that runs from July 20 through Aug. 11.
Getting to this point has not been easy. Mission teams have had to prep the rover and rocket for liftoff while the coronavirus pandemic swirled around them, forcing the closure of many NASA facilities. But the space agency prioritized getting Perseverance to the pad on time (while protecting workers’ safety as well), given that Mars-mission launch windows open just once every 26 months.
“If we have to take Perseverance and put it back into storage for a period of two years, it could cost half a billion dollars,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a news conference last Wednesday (June 17).
That would be on top of the $2.7 billion total price tag for Perseverance’s mission, which is called Mars 2020.
Whenever the six-wheeled rover lifts off during the coming window, it will land on Feb. 18, 2021, inside the Red Planet’s 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater. Jezero harbored a lake and river delta billions of years ago, and Perseverance will use its seven science instruments to characterize that potentially habitable ancient environment and look for evidence of long-dead Mars life, among other things.
No robot has hunted for signs of life on the Martian surface since NASA’s twin Viking landers, which touched down in the mid-1970s to look for extant organisms.
But, as the Vikings’ ambiguous results show, making a definitive detection of alien life is a tall order for a lonely robot on a faraway world. So, Perseverance will also collect and cache several dozen pristine samples, which will be brought to Earth by a joint NASA/European Space Agency effort in 2031, if current plans hold.
“On the Perseverance side, we see it as our job to identify potential biosignatures — things that are worthy of additional study here on Earth, with the full arsenal of analytical capabilities that we have here in our own laboratories,” Mars 2020 deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said during Wednesday’s news conference. “I think that’s how we’re going to approach that question of the surface of Mars.”
Perseverance will also test out tech for future exploration efforts. For example, one of the rover’s instruments will generate oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is thin and dominated by carbon dioxide. Such tech could help human pioneers live and work on the Red Planet someday, NASA officials have said.
The Mars 2020 mission also features a tiny helicopter named Ingenuity, which will travel to the Red Planet on Perseverance’s belly. Ingenuity will make a few short test flights in the Martian sky, potentially paving the way for future rotorcraft that could serve as rover scouts and/or gather lots of data on their own.
“Getting it to Mars, getting it safely off the vehicle — we’re going to learn a lot,” Mars 2020 deputy project manager Matt Wallace said of Ingenuity. “We are not looking for an extensive and ambitious return from this technology; we’re looking to learn those first few things that we need to learn.”
The nuclear-powered Perseverance is also outfitted with 23 cameras and two microphones. If all goes according to plan, the mission will capture high-definition video of Perseverance’s dramatic sky-crane landing and record the sounds of the Martian surface. Both types of data collection would be unprecedented.
“Perseverance is the most sophisticated mission we’ve ever sent to the Red Planet’s surface,” said Lori Glaze, the director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
Two other NASA robots are active on the Martian surface at the moment: the InSight Mars lander, which has been monitoring marsquakes since its November 2018 touchdown, and the Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the 96-mile-wide (154 km) Gale Crater since August 2012.
Curiosity is Perseverance’s forebear in multiple ways. Perseverance’s chassis is based heavily on that of the older rover, which also pioneered the sky-crane landing strategy that Mars 2020 will employ. And Curiosity has determined that at least some parts of Mars were capable of supporting Earth-like life in the ancient past, paving the way for Perseverance to take the next step and hunt for signs of native Martian organisms.