From golden pictures of the rocks on Martian surface, to the sounds of the wind in Mars’ thin atmosphere, NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover is constantly keeping “earthlings” on their toes.
Owing to its similarities with our home planet, our neighbouring red planet has been a favourite among scientists across the world for decades. And they have inched one more step closer in their attempts to find the signs of ancient life on Mars as the first readings from the SuperCam instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover arrived on Earth, days after the rover landed on the red planet’s surface. On February 18, 2021 as the NASA (National Aeronautics Space Administration) spacecraft plummeted, parachuted, and rocketed toward the surface of Mars, a historic landmark was achieved.
After a 203-day journey travelling 472 million kilometers, the largest, most advanced rover NASA has sent to another world touched down on Mars. Packed with groundbreaking technology, the Mars 2020 mission was launched on July 30, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The Perseverance rover mission marks an ambitious first step in the effort to collect Mars samples and return them to Earth, stated the global space agency.
You’re looking at the real deal images I used to make my pinpoint landing. This is how I quickly got my bearings and picked the safest target in the last three minutes before touchdown. How it works: https://t.co/Q1dBl8ZH8x pic.twitter.com/HK6uuKbLcQ— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) March 11, 2021
“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States, and space exploration globally – when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, so to speak, to rewrite the textbooks. The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission embodies our nation’s spirit of persevering even in the most challenging of situations, inspiring, and advancing science and exploration. The mission itself personifies the human ideal of persevering toward the future and will help us prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet,”acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk had said.
Sounds to study the structure of the Martian rocks
The first readings from the SuperCam instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover arrived on Earth and have been making all the buzz (quite literally) in the mission’s latest feat. On March 9, the mission released three SuperCam audio files obtained only about 18 hours after landing, when the mast remained stowed on the rover deck, the first file captured the faint sounds of Martian wind.
After a 203-day journey travelling 472 million kilometers, the largest, most advanced rover NASA has sent to another world touched down on Mars.
One of the three files, includes the zapping sounds of the laser impacting a rock target 30 times at a distance of about 10 feet. Some zaps sound slightly louder than others, providing information on the physical structure of the targets, such as its relative hardness.
?? You’re listening to the first audio recordings of laser strikes on Mars. These rhythmic tapping sounds heard by the microphone on my SuperCam instrument have different intensities that can help my team figure out the structure of the rocks around me. https://t.co/nfWyOyfhNy— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) March 10, 2021
The SuperCam team also received the first datasets from the instrument’s visible and infrared (VISIR) sensor as well as its Raman spectrometer. VISIR collects light reflected from the Sun to study the mineral content of rocks and sediments. Raman spectroscopy is to play a crucial role in characterising minerals to gain deeper insight into the geological conditions under which they formed and to detect potential organic and mineral molecules that might have been formed by living organisms.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters stated. “The information received from SuperCamwill be essential when determining which samples to cache and ultimately return to Earth through our groundbreaking Mars Sample Return Campaign, which will be one of the most ambitious feats ever undertaken by humanity.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters stated. “SuperCam truly gives our rover eyes to see promising rock samples and ears to hear what it sounds like when the lasers strike them. This information will be essential when determining which samples to cache and ultimately return to Earth through our groundbreaking Mars Sample Return Campaign, which will be one of the most ambitious feats ever undertaken by humanity.”
The Perseverance Rover
The rover, fondly named as Perseverance, is about the size of a car, weighing 1,026 kilogram. The robotic geologist and astrobiologist will undergo several weeks of testing before it begins its two-year science investigation of Mars’ Jezero Crater. While the rover will investigate the rock and sediment of Jezero’s ancient lake bed and river delta to characterise the region’s geology and past climate, a fundamental part of its mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life.
“Perseverance is the first step in bringing back rock and regolith from Mars. We don’t know what these pristine samples from Mars will tell us. But what they could tell us is monumental – including that life might have once existed beyond Earth,” Zurbuchen added.
Equipped with seven primary science instruments, the most cameras ever sent to Mars, and its exquisitely complex sample caching system, Perseverance is the first of its kind sent into space.
About 45 kilometers wide, Jezero Crater sits on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Scientists have determined that 3.5 billion years ago the crater had its own river delta and was filled with water.
Equipped with seven primary science instruments, the most cameras ever sent to Mars, and its exquisitely complex sample caching system – the first of its kind sent into space – Perseverance will scour the Jezero region for fossilised remains of ancient microscopic Martian life, taking samples along the way.
Testing to gear up
The rover has already begun testing and flexing its parts to gear up for the extensive experiments that lie ahead of it. Perseverance performed its first drive on Mars on March 4, covering 6.5 meters across the Martian landscape. The rover’s six-wheel drive served as a mobility test that marks just one of many milestones as team members check out and calibrate every system, subsystem, and instrument on Perseverance. Once the rover begins pursuing its science goals, regular commutes extending 200 meters or more are expected.
I’m on the move! Just took my first test drive on Mars, covering about 16 feet (5 meters). You’re looking at the very beginning of my wheel tracks. Many more to make. pic.twitter.com/7tFIwWFfJ4— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) March 5, 2021
On February 26, Perseverance’s eighth Martian day, since landing – mission controllers also completed a software update, replacing the computer program that helped land Perseverance with one they will rely on to investigate the planet. More recently, the controllers also checked out Perseverance’s Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) and Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment (MOXIE) instruments, and deployed the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyser (MEDA) instrument’s two wind sensors, which extend out from the rover’s mast. Another significant milestone occurred on March 2, when engineers unstowed the rover’s 2-meter-long robotic arm for the first time, flexing each of its five joints over the course of two hours.
Flexing my robotic arm and doing some more checkouts of my tools. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be focused on finishing health checks of arm instruments, and then dropping off the helicopter so it can get ready for its demo flight.— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) March 9, 2021
Latest raw images: https://t.co/Ex1QDo3eC2 pic.twitter.com/9aZqGg6v4a
“Tuesday’s first test of the robotic arm was a big moment for us. That’s the main tool the science team will use to do close-up examination of the geologic features of Jezero Crater, and then we’ll drill and sample the ones they find the most interesting. When we got confirmation of the robotic arm flexing its muscles, including images of it working beautifully after its long trip to Mars – well, it made my day,”said Robert Hogg, Mars 2020 Perseverance rover deputy mission manager.
Through it all, the rover has been sending down images from the most advanced suite of cameras ever to travel to Mars. The mission’s cameras have already sent over 7,000 images. On Earth, Perseverance’s imagery flows through the powerful Deep Space Network (DSN), managed by NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program. In space, several Mars orbiters play an equally important role.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is the first aircraft humanity has sent to another planet to attempt powered, controlled flight.
Upcoming events and evaluations include more detailed testing and calibration of science instruments, sending the rover on longer drives, and jettisoning covers that shield both the adaptive caching assembly (part of the rover’s Sample Caching System) and the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter during landing. The experimental flight test program for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will also take place during the rover’s commissioning.
I’ve continued driving to scout a spot where I’ll drop off the Mars Helicopter, if the area gets certified as a flight zone. So far, about 230 feet (70 meters) of wheel tracks behind me.— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) March 8, 2021
See my latest location: https://t.co/uPsKFhW17J pic.twitter.com/tlPvnlK8Qt
Mars Helicopter Ingenuity
Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have received the first status report from the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which landed February 18, at Jezero Crater attached to the belly of the agency’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. NASA reported that the downlink indicates that both the helicopter, which will remain attached to the rover for 30 to 60 days, and its base station (an electrical box on the rover that stores and routes communications between the rotorcraft and Earth) are operating as expected.
“There are two big-ticket items we are looking for in the data: the state of charge of Ingenuity’s batteries as well as confirmation the base station is operating as designed, commanding heaters to turn off and on to keep the helicopter’s electronics within an expected range,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter operations lead at JPL.
“As operations lead, I am the primary point of communication between the GN&C subsystem and the rest of the project. I am responsible for the training of the GN&C team, scheduling the mission control staffing for GN&C, as well as the policies/procedures the GN&C uses in the mission control room,” Dr. Swati Mohan, Mars 2020 Guidance & Controls (GN&C) Operations Lead at JPL.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is the first aircraft humanity has sent to another planet to attempt powered, controlled flight. If its experimental flight test program succeeds, the data returned could benefit future explorations of the Red Planet – including those by astronauts – by adding the aerial dimension, which is not available today.Taking to the air would give scientists a new perspective on a region’s geology and even allow them to peer into areas that are too steep or slippery to send a rover.
The Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, is a technology demonstration to test powered flight on another world for the first time. Once the team finds a suitable "helipad" location, the rover will release Ingenuity to perform a series of test flights over a 30-Martian-day experimental window beginning sometime in the spring.
For the first flight, the helicopter will take off a few feet from the ground, hover in the air for about 20 to 30 seconds, and land. That will be a major milestone: the very first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars. After that, the team will attempt additional experimental flights of incrementally farther distance and greater altitude. After the helicopter completes its technology demonstration, Perseverance will continue its scientific mission.
Ingenuity will use solar power to charge its batteries and rely on internal heaters to maintain operational temperatures during the cold Martian nights. After receiving commands from Earth relayed through the rover, each test flight is performed without real-time input from Mars Helicopter mission controllers. The helicopter is designed to fly, land, communicate, manage its energy, and keep warm autonomously. Innovative mathematical algorithms will allow flight in the thin atmosphere, keep track of the helicopter’smovements, and ensure it remains on the planned flight path.
Mars Sample Return
The most ambitious and exciting objective of this mission is that the Perseverance rover will gather samples from Martian rocks and soil using its drill. The rover will then store the sample cores in tubes on the Martian surface. This entire process is called "sample caching". Mars 2020 will be the first mission to demonstrate this on Mars. It could potentially pave the way for future missions that could collect the samples and return them to Earth for intensive laboratory analysis. The first scientific focus of NASA’s Perseverance rover is a rock named “Máaz”.
Welcome to “Máaz.”— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) March 11, 2021
My team is working with the Navajo Nation and @NNPrezNez, who are sharing their language to help us informally name features I’m exploring on Mars, like:
tsé lichíí (red rock)
séítah (amongst the sand)
Learn more: https://t.co/lqy0K1zz6N pic.twitter.com/B50gfRNR3D
Mars Sample Return (MSR) is a proposed mission to return samples from the surface of Mars to Earth. The mission would use robotic systems and a Mars ascent rocket to collect and send samples of Martian rocks, soils and atmosphere to Earth for detailed chemical and physical analysis. The mission is being planned jointly with the European Space Agency (ESA). MSR will allow scientists on Earth to study samples collected by Perseverance to search for definitive signs of past life using instruments too large and complex to send to the Red Planet.
Bringing Mars samples back to Earth will allow scientists across the world to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars, and will allow future generations to study them using technology not yet available. Curating the samples on Earth will allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades.
Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.
Nearly 11 million names of “earthlings” are on Mars Perseverance mission which is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.
Indian-American women leading the way
On February 18 as anxiety took over the various spectators across the globe as well as the NASA scientists while Perseverance proceeded its descent on the surface of Mars, a voice “Touchdown confirmed” filled the atmosphere with joy and relief. The voice was of Dr. Swati Mohan, Mars 2020 Guidance & Controls (GN&C) Operations Lead at JPL. She led the attitude control system of Mars 2020 during operations, and was the lead systems engineer throughout development. The attitude control system points the vehicle where it needs to be and helps figure out where the spacecraft is oriented in space.
Dr. Mohan emigrated from India to the United States when she was 1 year old. She completed her B.S from Cornell University in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, and her M.S. and Ph.D from MIT in Aeronautics/Astronautics and has worked on multiple missions such as Cassini (mission to Saturn) and GRAIL (a pair of formation flown spacecraft to the Moon). She has worked on Mars 2020 since almost the beginning of the project in 2013.
“The GN&C subsystem is ‘eyes and ears’ of the spacecraft. During the cruise phase heading toward Mars, our job is to figure out how we are oriented, make sure the spacecraft is pointed correctly in space (solar arrays to sun, antenna to Earth), and maneuver the spacecraft to get it where we want to go. During entry, descent, and landing on Mars, GN&C determines the position of the spacecraft and commands the maneuvers it to help it land safely. As operations lead, I am the primary point of communication between the GN&C subsystem and the rest of the project. I am responsible for the training of the GN&C team, scheduling the mission control staffing for GN&C, as well as the policies/procedures the GN&C uses in the mission control room,” Swati informs.
To find new and beautiful places in the universe is what inspired her to work in the space sector and she believes that the vastness of space holds so much knowledge that we have only begun to learn.
Along with Perseverance, two other Mars missions were launched last year in July by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) under the name, Hope and China’s Tianwen-1. Before Perseverance, two NASA spacecraft, Insight and Curiosity are also active on the Martian surface. Prior to these NASA has had its rovers, Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity also explore Mars through NASA’s Mars Pathfinder mission as well as the Viking 1 and 2 which were the first spacecraft to successfully operate on the planet’s surface.
I’m part of a proud lineage of robotic explorers, carrying the torch forward on Mars. This plaque I carry pays tribute to those who’ve gone before me, and to new possibilities ahead. #CountdownToMars https://t.co/P1VdyrIW2O pic.twitter.com/RL2hSWS0oL— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) February 26, 2021
Several spacecraft including NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Odyssey; ESA’s Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter; and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission are also continuously transmitting data from the red planet’s orbit.
All these non-crew robotic activities are aimed at preparing for sending humans to MARS for which NASA is targeting the 2030s.