NASA’s Perseverance rover is headed to Mars, the third spacecraft to head that way this month.
Perseverance, a robotic wheeled vehicle designed to look for signs of past life on Mars, lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Thursday at 7:50 a.m. Eastern time. The launch was pushed back a couple of weeks by a series of technical delays and overcame challenges imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, which required many of its engineers to work from home.
The rover’s destination is a crater, Jezero, which was once a lake in the northern hemisphere of Mars. Scientists believe it is a promising location where signs of ancient Martian life could be preserved if life ever existed on Mars.
The Atlas 5 rocket lofted the spacecraft away from Earth and on a trajectory to arrive at Mars in six-and-a-half months. It follows July’s earlier launches by the United Arab Emirates and China. While Perseverance is last to leave, all three missions should arrive at the red planet at about the same time, in February.
For people at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which will be responsible for operating the mission during its journey to Mars, an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.2 provided a bit of an extra jolt to the countdown. It did not affect the launch, but employees working on the mission expressed their surprise on Twitter.
The launch was largely flawless, but a couple of hiccups emerged once it began its movements toward Mars.
First, a few hours after launch, NASA was having some trouble communicating with the spacecraft. “It’s something we’ve seen before with other Mars missions,” Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said during a post-launch news conference.
The large radio dishes of the Deep Space Network that communicate with distant spacecraft were receiving Perseverance’s radio signals loud and clear — in effect, too loud.
As Mr. Bridenstine was speaking, Matt Wallace, the deputy project manager, received a text message that engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had made the adjustments that allowed the dishes to lock onto the telemetry data.
Second, as the mission’s controllers on the ground looked through the telemetry, they learned that Perseverance had entered “safe mode” — a precautionary state when a spacecraft detects something not quite right and waits for instructions from Earth. In a statement, the agency said that part of the spacecraft was colder than expected while it traveled in Earth’s shadow. Temperatures have since warmed, and engineers are working to bring Perseverance back into normal working condition.
What is the Perseverance rover?
Perseverance is a car-size wheeled robot nearly identical in design to NASA’s previous Mars rover, Curiosity, which landed in 2012. However, Perseverance is headed to a different place — a crater named Jezero that was once a lake — carrying a different set of instruments. Curiosity was designed to look for habitable environments, and it found signs of a freshwater lake. Perseverance is to go a step farther and search for evidence of past life that might have lived in the lake at Jezero.
Perseverance is also carrying a couple of devices that are more fun than scientific: several cameras, which will record various views as the spacecraft zooms through the atmosphere en route to landing; and two microphones, which will be the first to record sounds on another planet.
It is carrying an experimental helicopter, too.
Wait, a helicopter?
Yup, it’s called Ingenuity. The four-pound Marscopter is a technology experiment, and if it works, it will be the first powered flight on another planet. The rotors have to spin at 2,400 revolutions a minute to generate lift in the thin atmosphere of Mars, just one percent as dense at Earth’s at the surface.
How will the mission help future astronauts?
A couple of experiments on Perseverance have nothing to do with searching for past life, but they could help future life on Mars — astronauts from Earth.
One of the crucial supplies that astronauts will need is oxygen, for breathing and as a rocket propellant.
The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, will take carbon dioxide molecules from the Martian atmosphere and split them into oxygen atoms and carbon monoxide.
MOXIE will try to demonstrate that is possible on the surface of the red planet. But the amount of oxygen it could produce — less than ounce per hour — is tiny.
“We’re only making about enough oxygen to keep a small dog alive,” said Michael Hecht, the principal investigator for MOXIE.
But if the idea works, the technique could be employed in the future on a much larger scale to fill up a rocket. “So astronauts in a future Mars mission could take off from Mars to come home,” he said.
Perseverance is also carrying samples of materials used in spacesuits, mounted on a target used to calibrate one of the rover’s instruments.
“When I send somebody to Mars in my spacesuit, I want to make sure that they stay alive that whole time,” Amy Ross, one of NASA’s spacesuit designers said during a news conference on Tuesday.
With Perseverance taking repeated measurements over a couple of years on Mars, “we can understand how our materials hold up or don’t in that environment,” she said.
When will the mission arrive on Mars?
Perseverance will land on Mars on Feb. 18 next year at 3:40 p.m. Eastern time.
Every 26 months, Earth and Mars come close to each other, which allows the quickest, most efficient trip from Earth to Mars. If the launch does not occur by the middle of August, NASA would have to wait until the next opportunity, in 2022.
Where will Perseverance land, and why is it going there?
Jezero crater was filled with water about 3.5 billion years ago when Mars was warmer and wetter. From orbit, earlier NASA spacecraft spotted a dried-up river on one side of Jezero and an outflow channel can be seen on the other side. The sediments of a fan-shape delta can be seen where the river spilled into the crater. No one knows if anything ever lived on Mars, but if it did, Jezero would be a prime place to look, scientists decided.
Landing on Mars is difficult. The planet’s thin atmosphere isn’t thick enough to provide enough drag to slow down a spacecraft like Perseverance, which will be arriving at more than 12,000 miles per hour. But the atmosphere is still thick enough to generate thousands of degrees of heat, complicating the task of slowing down Perseverance before it slams into the ground. Quite a few landing attempts by NASA and other space agencies have ended with creating new craters on the red planet’s surface.
But NASA has pulled off five consecutive successful landings. To increase the likelihood that Perseverance rover will be the sixth, NASA has made adjustments to the parachute that slows the spacecraft when it reaches the Martian atmosphere. It has also improved the rover’s ability to identify a smooth landing site.
What else is going to Mars this summer?
The space program of the United Arab Emirates is modest, and its bid to join the ranks of countries that have reached Mars is part of an ambitious effort to inspire Emirati youth to take up careers in science and technology.
Its Hope spacecraft will orbit Mars for a number of years, helping scientists study the planet’s weather cycles.
China launched the second mission, Tianwen-1, on July 23.
The country’s space program has seen a number of successes in recent years, including two rovers that landed on Earth’s moon as well as a pair of space stations deployed in orbit. But its previous attempt to get to Mars in 2011 was lost when the Russian rocket it was riding on failed and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.
The new Chinese mission includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover. While other countries have taken a staggered approach to visiting Mars — an orbiter first, then a lander, then finally a rover — China emphasizes that it will attempt to operate all of these components for the first time at once.
The orbiter, according to four scientists involved in the mission, will study Mars and its atmosphere for about one Martian year, or 687 days on Earth. In addition to two cameras, the spacecraft carries subsurface radar, a detector to study the Martian magnetic field and three other scientific instruments.
The rover will try to land in the Utopia Planitia region in the mid-northern Martian latitudes. NASA’s Viking 2 mission touched down there in 1976. Earlier studies using data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed that Utopia Planitia has a layer of water ice equivalent to what is found in Lake Superior on Earth.
If it manages the perilous Martian landing, the rover will use a mix of cameras, ground-penetrating radar and other instruments to better understand the distribution of underground ice, which future human colonists on Mars could use to sustain themselves. China’s mission is to last about 90 Martian days.
A fourth mission, the joint Russian-European Rosalind Franklin rover, was to launch this summer, too. But technical hurdles, aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, could not be overcome in time. It is now scheduled to launch in 2022.
What other spacecraft are currently studying Mars?
It’s getting a bit crowded around the red planet.
Six orbiters are currently studying the planet from space. Three were sent there by NASA: Mars Odyssey, launched in 2001; Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, in 2005; and MAVEN, which left Earth in 2013.
Europe has two spacecraft in orbit. Its Mars Express orbiter was launched in 2003, and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is shared with Russia’s space program, lifted off in 2016.
India operates the sixth spacecraft, the Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan, which launched in 2013.
Two American missions are currently operating on the ground. Curiosity has been roving since 2012. It is joined by InSight, a stationary lander that has been studying Marsquakes and other inner properties of the red planet since 2018. A third American mission, the Opportunity rover, expired in 2019 when a dust storm caused it to lose power.