After years of designing, building, planning and testing, the NASA Perseverance rover’s launch readiness review has concluded, and it’s a go for launch on July 30.
Perseverance is armed with a multitude of new capabilities and instruments to explore and experience the red planet.
The rover is designed to determine whether life existed on ancient Mars, characterize the Martian climate and geology and prepare for human exploration. It will investigate Jezero Crater and search for any evidence that the ancient lake bed once supported life.
Perseverance will collect up to 43 samples of Martian rock and soil over the course of its two-year mission. These samples will be stowed in white tubes on the Martian surface to be returned to Earth on a future planned mission.
Riding along with Perseverance to Mars is Ingenuity, the first helicopter that will be flown on another planet. It’s one of several experiments that will test technological capabilities during this mission that may be used more in future missions.
Here’s a look at some of the other exciting features of Perseverance and how it can help pave the way for humans landing on Mars in the future.
Robotic eyes and ears
The rover’s high-resolution camera “eyes” will help Perseverance survey the landscape, look for intriguing rocks to sample and decide where to deploy some of its instruments.
Perseverance’s cameras will be capturing video during the rover’s “seven minutes of terror” as it lands itself on Mars without any help from its teams on Earth, due to the unavoidable communication delay between the two planets.
While the video won’t be available in real time during entry, descent and landing, it will be shared in the weeks after landing.
The rover is also carrying a couple of microphones, and the rover teams look forward to hearing the sounds of the rover’s wheels on the Martian surface and the sound of wind on Mars.
The other microphone is on SuperCam, a scientific instrument that fires a laser at rocks and creates a plasma cloud that can provide the chemical makeup of the rock.
“When we fire this laser on Earth, you can hear a pop or zap,” said Matt Wallace, deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The science team is hoping with a microphone on top of the mast, they can learn something about the composition of the things their laser is interacting with.”
SHERLOC goes to Mars
The rover’s robotic arm has 21st-century scientific abilities.
The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, better known as PIXL, is a tiny, powerful X-ray beam that can detect over 20 chemical elements by pointing a beam at rocks. The beam produces a telling glow associated with each element present in about 10 seconds.
Its partner is known as SHERLOC, short for the long-winded Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals.
SHERLOC can seek out organic molecules and minerals, which helps inform science teams of where to collect and cache samples. Its ultraviolet laser will provide a different glow depending on the organic molecules and minerals it detects.
“These two new capabilities will allow us to investigate a postage stamp-size area for elemental chemistry and organic molecules,” said Ken Farley, Perseverance’s project scientist at the California Institute of Technology. “So we can both make a map of this small area and take a microscopic image. It’s a compelling way to look for microbial biosignatures.”
SHERLOC also carries five different materials used to make spacesuits to test how radiation and elements on Mars could weather and affect them for future human explorers.
And where would SHERLOC be without WATSON, a camera that can take microscopic images of grains in rock and textures? WATSON stands for Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering.
A self-driving vehicle
Human rover teams at NASA will send Perseverance commands once a day, but the rover will rely on its advanced computer “brains” to help it drive autonomously the rest of the time.
Compared to previous rovers, Perseverance has the benefit of a second “brain” installed to help Perseverance land itself on Mars and avoid hazards that will be repurposed once it’s on the surface.
The “brain,” officially known as a vision compute element (VCE), will help it do something called “thinking while driving,” said Heather Justice, robotic operations downlink lead at JPL.
The rover will take images and build a map as it drives, identifying obstacles or slopes in the images and deciding what it can drive around or over to figure out a path forward.
It’s better than GPS
Perseverance will land on Mars using the new Terrain Relative Navigation system, which allows the lander to avoid any large hazards in the landing zone.
“In past missions, the landing zone needed to be like a parking lot,” totally clear of debris, said Andrew Johnson, the rover’s manager of the guidance navigation control system. But in the case of Perseverance, “you can place it in craters, steep slopes, rock fields.”
A sensor called the lander vision system takes pictures during the parachute descent stage. This matches up with the map provided by images taken from orbit, creating a guide that can identify craters, mountains and other landmarks.
The system provides safe target selection by using its map to rank landing sites for their safety. The lander can look for the safest place to land or even divert to a specific spot if it identifies a hazard. And all of the images collected during the landing stage will be sent to the team on Earth.
This system could later be used to land humans on the moon, as well as Mars.
This rover has MOXIE
Astronauts exploring Mars will need oxygen, but carting enough to sustain them on a spacecraft isn’t viable.
Perseverance will carry an apparatus called MOXIE, or the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, to convert Mars’ plentiful carbon dioxide into the oxygen astronauts will need to breathe. Oxygen will also be needed for fuel.
With MOXIE, “you don’t have to take an estimated 27 metric tons of oxygen to Mars” to get them home,” said Mike Hecht, principal investigator for MOXIE at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The small MOXIE experiment will switch on and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen for a couple of hours every month or two of the mission, using about a day’s worth of energy on the rover. It will only produce about 10 grams of oxygen an hour — enough for half of a person, Hecht said.
The MOXIE team will apply lessons learned for developing a larger and more powerful system for a manned mission.
“If a bunch of Mark Watneys are going to risk their lives, we better make sure it works,” Hecht said, citing the main character in the novel “The Martian” by Andy Weir.
Monitoring weather and environment
Understanding the weather and environment on Mars will be crucial for determining the conditions astronauts will face.
That’s why the rover has its own monitoring sytem. The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, called MEDA, is a suite of sensors on the rover to study weather science, dust and radiation, and how they change over Martian seasons.
The instrument will characterize the planet’s environment beyond weather — including variables like temperature, pressure and wind — and gain a better understanding of solar radiation on the surface, according to Manuel de la Torre Juarez, deputy principal investigator for MEDA. The instrument was contributed by a team from the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid.
The temperature on Mars can vary by as much as 80 or 90 degrees between day and night. Understanding radiation from the surface will tell scientists how much the sun heats the air, which causes wind and temperature changes. They could also understand more about the water cycle of Mars.
Peeking beneath the surface
For the first time, a surface mission will include a ground-penetrating radar instrument called RIMFAX, or Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment. It will be able to peek beneath the surface and study Martian geology, looking for rock, ice and boulder layers.
Scientists hope that RIMFAX will help them understand the geologic history of Jezero Crater, according to David Paige, principal investigator for the experiment at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In the future, RIMFAX, or a version of it, could be used by astronauts to find water beneath the surface.
“One of the most useful things we can find is ice below the surface,” Paige said. “It would probably be included in future landers and rovers or airborne vehicles in searching for resources.”
Together, the suite of instruments and experiments on Perseverance will add more pieces to complete the puzzle of Mars.
“Rover missions are designed as situation comedies with an ensemble cast,” Paige said. “Each member has a specific role that contributes to the overall science and addresses a certain subset of questions. Our main goal is, ‘Thank goodness we brought a RIMFAX with us.'”