The Perseverance mission (officially known in NASA as Mars 2020) is the latest since the Curiosity rover that landed at the Gale Crater on Mars in 2013. The Perseverance rover is in a sense, an extension of Curiosity, but it’s to probe specific questions about Mars – to examine organic content on Mars to see if ancient microbial life possibly existed, to understand the climate on Mars and determine if hospitable conditions did exist in the past, and to demonstrate the artificial synthesis of oxygen using the
atmospheric carbon dioxide on Mars.
The mission got traction in India after, Dr. Swati Mohan, who was the most visible face at the Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Pasadena, California, shared updates about the rover’s entry, descent and landing on Mars with the rest of her team and the world. The whole landing phase of the mission was viewed by at least 21 million people on YouTube and many more on their television sets. Her Indian ancestry, bought her media attention, appearing on interviews with national television
channels. She was the Guidance and Controls Operations Lead of the Perseverance mission.
The Perseverance rover weighs about 1025 kilograms and is the heaviest ever sent to Mars, with its size comparable to a Tesla Model X
Her role was to ensure the rover was properly oriented prior to the beginning of the entry, descent and landing stage of the mission. JPL, where she works, is the technology arm of NASA and is in charge of the
creation of rockets and robots including the Mars rovers, and played a key role during the Apollo missions. On 30 th July, 2020, amidst the rampaging COVID pandemic, the Atlas V rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida hurtling into space for over 201 days. On 18 th February 2021, after an intense entry and descent phase, Perseverance landing was recorded and broadcasted by NASA to the rest of the world.
SOME FACTS ON PERSEVERANCE:
The Perseverance rover weighs about 1025 kilograms and is the heaviest ever sent to Mars, with its size comparable to a Tesla Model X. The rover’s top speed is about 0.014 kmph with the rover covering about 100 meters per day. That’s miniscule for a robot, but the whole point is that the rover is not a car in anyways. Unlike a car, the rover uses a radioactive source to power its instruments on board and drive its wheels. The rover wasn’t built to drive long distances. It’s supposed to perform scientific analysis on its environment, including its surface and atmosphere.
SCIENTIFIC EQUIPMENT AND SYNTHESIZING OXYGEN ON THE SURFACE
Perseverance has over seven instruments – SHERLOC, MOXIE, PIXL, RIMFAX, Mastcam-Z, SuperCam and MEDA. The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (abbreviated MOXIE) will test oxygen production capabilities on Mars, functioning like a tree – breathing in the carbon dioxide (that comprises over 96% of the Martian atmosphere) and breathe out oxygen (which is just 0.13% on Mars without artificial production). This
instrument can reduce the logistics for future humans by having them not carry a liquid oxygen propellant with them.
The MOXIE device will create oxygen gas from carbon dioxide, producing carbon monoxide as a by-product. Later this oxygen is tested for purity and then released into the Martian atmosphere.
Other instruments on board include the SuperCam, that performs imaging and analysis of the chemical composition of the soil, and looks for organic matter from a distance. The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) is a ground penetration radar that will help model the structure just below the surface. The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) will help to detect chemical elements on the surface using an x-ray spectrometer.
The MOXIE device will create oxygen gas from carbon dioxide, producing carbon monoxide as a by-product. Later this oxygen is tested for purity and then released into the Martian atmosphere
Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) will measure the temperature, pressure, wind speed, relative humidity and size and shape of the dust particles. The MastCam provides panoramic images of Mars. Perseverance’s most prominent feature perhaps is its extendable robotic arm, at the end of which is the “turret” that can drill into rock samples and consists of a few of the mentioned scientific instruments to perform analysis, similar to how a geologist would perform their duties on earth.
PERSEVERANCE’S HEART AND LIFE SOURCE
Perseverance rover draws its power from the MMRTG, unlike its predecessors like Spirit and Opportunity that relied on solar energy. An MMRTG, abbreviation for the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, utilizes radiation from nuclear decay of a plutonium-238 sample weighting 4.5 kilograms. A thermocouple will then set up a temperature-dependent voltage from this radiation to run the electronics aboard. The MMRTG provides a peak power of 110 W but then this power supply will
decrease steadily due to nuclear decay. However, the plutonium sample will last long enough and function adequately past its designed mission life span. The rover has two extra rechargeable lithium ion batteries to perform activities that require further power.
INGENUITY – A LATEST INNOVATION, AND FIRST OF CONTROLLED FLIGHT ON MARS
It’s an impressive engineering marvel that requires some talent, dedication and smart work went into this project since being announced in December 2012, at the American Geophysical Union. It isn’t just the rover that has gone in as part of project Mars 2020, but a small helicopter aboard Perseverance. The helicopter will serve as a technology demonstration for future airborne missions on Mars. The helicopter, aptly named Ingenuity, will commence flight test in April 2021. The helicopter will hover for
90 seconds and then recharge with its onboard solar panels. This will be the first time that controlled flight has ever been performed on another planetary body, that too with an extremely thin atmosphere
(having a pressure of only 0.095 psi, compared to earth’s pressure at sea level of about 14 psi). It has taken true ingenuity for the engineers to build this machine.
WHAT’S THE FUTURE AND WHAT’S EXPECTED OUT OF MARS 2020
This mission is truly a bridge between humanity’s aspirations and culmination of a long awaited dream to place the first humans on another world. Scientists and engineers will need all the data they want,
because although Mars may be a dead planet, it had an interesting history. Scientists are positive about the existence of flowing liquid water on the surface billions of years ago, and even had a stable atmosphere. But we just don’t know how it all went, and why it went. These fundamental questions
become relevant to us as humans to identify the necessary conditions needed to harbor life on other planets other than our own.