NASA’s rover Perseverance is looking for evidence of past habitability on Mars
NASA’s Perseverance arrived on Mars on February 18, 2021. Since then, it has started seeking the signs of long-gone life and compiling the materials to send back to our planet.
The rover: how does it look?
Perseverance robot’s appearance is very much like the previous explorer Curiosity rover, which arrived on Mars in August 2012. Moreover, about 85% of Perseverance hardware is based upon the Curiosity rover, as it was made by the same NASA’s researchers and it significantly reduces risks, economizing as well.
The robot’s length is 3 meters (plus the arm), its width is 2.7 meters and height ‒ 2.2 meters; it weighs 1,025 kilos. Perseverance is rectangular with six wheels, an arm, and a hand to gather samples for research. It is fitted with gear that helps it navigate. However, the equipment of Curiosity and Perseverance is rather different as they pursue different goals. The first one is aimed at identifying if it was ever possible to live there, the second one’s objective is to find actual evidence of past habitability.
Perseverance has got several improvements in entry, descend, and landing strategy in comparison with Curiosity. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, managing the Mars 2020 mission, elaborated an innovative program of landing. When the rover was descending it was employing a computer to check if the landscapes corresponded to the pre-loaded maps. Thus, it could navigate better and find a better location for landing.
A range trigger, one more update, was used to identify the time of opening the parachute, allowing it to touch land as close to the sites of research interest as possible, while they were considered too hazardous for the Curiosity rover.
The rover’s scientific instruments
Perseverance rover is fitted with 23 cameras. For reference, the first Mars rover was geared with five cams (1997), two followings had 10 cameras each, and Curiosity is fitted with 17 cameras.
The cameras documented the rover’s landing in epic detail, featuring the parachute opening and the moment of touching the Martian land itself. The high-quality cameras take better images than Curiosity, e.g., Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z is Curiosity’s upgraded camera system. It is housed on the robot’s mast.
Perseverance cameras take 20-megapixel photos in color, while all the preceding rovers took 1-megapixel pictures in black and white. Now it is possible to photograph a view in one snapshot and while moving as well. The only problem is that robot’s cameras can film much more information than can be actually sent to the Blue Planet. The image compression is carried out by electronics in the camera itself, while it was done on the onboard computers in the previous rovers.
The recorded data is broadcast to the Earth by means of a few orbiters. They are NASA’s Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), and the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter.
Another scientific tool of Perseverance is SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) helping to find chemicals that imply the past habitability on the Red Planet. This camera photographs rocks and identifies the chemicals. The instrument resides at the robot’s arm.
One more instrument, housed at the end of its arm, is PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) specifies the elements of Martian materials very precisely by means of an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and a high-resolution camera.
The SuperCam instrument applies lasers to the rocks and examines the evaporation gained in the process. This camera resides on the rover’s mast.
The robotic explorer’s body is also fitted with RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment) which penetrates deep under the surface of the planet, up to 10 meters deep, investigating and mapping all the layers. It sits on the tip of the rover’s arm.
Perseverance is equipped with MEDA (Mars Environmental Data Analyzer), a weather station. It is housed on the robot’s body, as well as another rover’s tool MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), producing oxygen from the atmosphere of Mars. It actually gives a new horizon, making it possible for Earthmen to visit the Red Planet over time. Indeed, NASA is planning to head to Mars in the 2030s.
The robot has got two microphones (one is built into the EDL camera system, another – into SuperCam), broadcasting the audio material to the Earth. Unfortunately, the microphones did not manage to record the audio while landing. But in a short term, they made the first sound record on Mars in history, as all the preceding rovers were not able to transmit audio data to the Blue Planet. Mars 2020 Mission claims hearing these sounds makes Mars closer to us.
The mics are also able to determine the hardness of rocks and their coating, as well as enhance the perception of the thin atmosphere of Mars. It might be even possible to capture the stereo sound by virtue of applying two microphones simultaneously.
What is Ingenuity?
Perseverance had a passenger onboard – a mini helicopter with the weight of only1,8 kilos, called Ingenuity. It is fitted with a high-resolution cam, but with no scientific instruments. If it works out to fly up, it could become an essential element in Mars exploration, collecting the information and functioning as a scout, according to NASA. The Perseverance cameras and microphones are going to record the first Ingenuity flights soon.
How is it powered?
Unlike their predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, which were solar-powered and broke due to the lack of sunlight, Curiosity and Perseverance are nuclear-powered, each having a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG).
The operating time of MMRTGs is 14 years. They generate electricity from the heat produced by plutonium-238 decay.
How did the journey start?
Perseverance commenced its journey from the Earth on July 30, 2020. Launching has always been a difficult task, but for Perseverance, it was a bit more complicated, as it happened during the coronavirus pandemic. All the final testing, procedures, and preparations were done from team members’ homes. In March or April, they even had doubts if they could cope with it.
But due to the team’s commitment and determination, they managed to launch Perseverance as planned.
What is Perseverance examining now?
The rover’s trip to Mars was successful and it landed 6.5 months later. After that, the robot started exploring the Jezero Crater, one of three winning landing locations, chosen for the Mars 2020 Mission. Two others were Columbia Hills and Northeast Syrtis. In 2004 the Spirit was exploring Columbia Hills and found traces of past water there in a crater.
Northeast Syrtis has got an old volcano where there could be microbial life earlier, thanks to possible ice and springs which might be there.
As NASA claims, the Jezero Crater is an old lakebed that might have had microbial life previously. Moreover, there is a delta of an old river, and there have been found minerals that were chemically changed by water.
The Jezero Crater’s terrain is 3.5 billion years old, and collecting data there could absolutely change the perception of the Red Planet.
The procedure of collecting materials
The rover is going to drill 20-40 rock cores, then they are to be transported in sample tubes to special places and retrieved by the NASA-European Space Agency campaign. The robot has all the necessary gear to take samples, e.g., its drill has various drill bits, as NASA claims.
Except for a long robotic arm (2.1 meters long), drilling rocks, and taking the material, Perseverance is fitted with a smaller arm on its belly which functions as a small laboratory. It relocates the sample tubes into a special place where they are stored and are to be transferred to our planet in the 2030s. After that, the samples are to be studied to find evidence of the Red Planet’s ancient habitability as it is supposed there was a damp and warm climate back then.
It is planned that the examination of Mars’ materials will take much time, as samples taken from the Moon have been studied already for fifty years.
Who were the names proposed by?
To pick a name for the robot NASA set up a competition among schoolchildren. Alexander Mather, a 13-year-old student from Virginia, became the winner. He proposed this name because humans will always persevere in spite of all constraints and challenges. Indeed, looking back at the launching of the rover in the midst of the pandemic, it did have a lot of obstacles, but it persevered.
Another name, submitted by a 17-year-old Alabama student Vaneeza Rupani, a girl with Indian origins, was relished much by NASA as well. Hence, they decided to give the name Ingenuity to the helicopter, as a lot of ingenuity was needed to create and prepare it for the trip.