March 3, 2021

Ten keys about the ‘Perseverance’ rover and other new missions to Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover – Percy, for its creators and friends – will arrive at the Jezero crater on Mars, if everything goes fine, this Thursday, February 18 about 9:55 p.m.. Its main purpose will be to search for evidence of ancient life, although it will also deepen our knowledge of this planet and help plan the next steps for eventual human exploration. We solve some frequent doubts about this new NASA mission:

"Migrating to Mars due to climate change is pure fantasy"

“Emigrating to Mars because of climate change is pure fantasy”

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1. Why are so many missions coming to Mars now?

Because they came out at the same time, taking advantage of a launch “window” that occurs every 26 months in which the distance between Earth and Mars is less. This facilitates operations, saves fuel and, therefore, costs when sending ships to the red planet. That window was open at the end of July 2020: the 19 took off the probe Hope Emirati, the 2. 3 the chinese ship Tianwen-1 and the 30 mission rover Perseverance Mars 2020 U.S.

Now they are, respectively, the 9, 10 and February 18. Unfortunately the European and Russian mission rover ExoMars, which was also scheduled to take off last summer and will arrive now, he couldn’t do it and you will have to wait for the next window to open in 2022.

2. How are the three current missions different?

The Emirates Hope probe will orbit around Mars for one Martian year (two Earths) to study its meteorology. China’s Tianwen-1 will also maintain an orbiter, but in addition, from May it will drop a ‘lander’ with a rover, who will descend from that platform to explore the Utopia Planitia region, in whose subsoil there is ice water. For its part, the US mission is going to place Perseverance, the largest and most sophisticated vehicle ever sent to land on another planet, by a different method.

3. Again the “seven minutes of terror” with Perseverance?

Yes, the landing system used with the Curiosity rover and the Insight module because it worked well. NASA engineers call the seven minutes it takes for the spacecraft to automatically decelerate from 19,500 km / h at which it enters the atmosphere of Mars to approximately 3 km / h with which it lands on its surface.

As radio signals take about 11 minutes to reach Earth (longer than the entire descent lasts), the commands cannot be managed live, so all phases are perfectly programmed and synchronized: separation of the navigation stage or cruising, entering the atmosphere, deploying a 21.5 m diameter parachute, releasing the heat shield, activating the novel TRN (terrain relative navigation) solution to probe the best landing point, separation of the rover shell, a system of cranes (skycrane) unhooks it and eventually deposits it on the ground, while the skycrane activates its thrusters to zoom away and crash away from Perseverance.

Cameras and microphones will record images and sounds throughout the descent. If all goes well, at 9:55 p.m. (Spanish peninsular time) on February 18, the rover It will be on the ground of Mars, but any minor mistake or unexpected meteorological event (a sandstorm, for example) could upset the plans: the landing could be more violent than expected or in a different place than expected. The NASA will broadcast the event in Spanish, in addition to other media and institutions.

4. Where is it going to land?

In the Jezero crater, about 50 km in diameter and located in the equatorial zone of Mars.

Scientists think that millions of years ago it was flooded with water: it was a lake where a river flowed. This carried clay compounds that tend to trap and preserve organic matter, so the delta is a good place to find remains of Martian life if there was any.

5. What is the goal of Perseverance?

The main one is to look for evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars, particularly in rocks known for their ability to preserve biological remains for long periods of time, but Perseverance is also going to explore a novel environment and take samples.

It will be the first mission to collect and store rocks and regolith (small fragments, dust and sand from the surface layer) from the Martian soil for their possible return to Earth in future missions. In addition, the rover will characterize the geology, the present and past climate of the planet, its habitability conditions and will prepare the way for the following robotic and human explorations.

6. How many scientific instruments does it carry?

Seven, and in the development of two of them (MEDA and SuperCam) Spanish research centers have participated. Together, they will serve the mission objectives by conducting unprecedented experiments and testing new technologies. Are these:

Mastcam-Z: camera system to capture panoramic, stereoscopic and zoom images (Arizona State University).

SuperCam: instrument equipped with a camera, laser and spectrometers to remotely analyze the chemical and mineralogical composition of compounds, including organic ones. You can, for example, examine samples such as the tip of a pencil at seven meters. It has been built at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in collaboration with the French IRAP institute and the University of Valladolid, which has developed its calibration system.

PIXL: a fluorescent x-ray spectrometer to accurately analyze the chemical composition of material on the Martian surface (NASA JPL Laboratory).

SHERLOC: Raman spectrometer with ultraviolet laser to detect organic compounds and other substances. It includes a high resolution camera for taking color microscopic images of the soil of Mars (Also from JPL).

MOXIE: experiment to produce oxygen from Martian CO2. If successful, it would be a way for astronauts to generate fuel on Mars to return to Earth (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT).

MEDA: weather station made in Spain with sensors that will measure the temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity, solar radiation, as well as the size and shape of the dust. The principal investigator is José Antonio Rodríguez-Manfredi of the Center for Astrobiology (CSIC-INTA).

RIMFAX: generator of radar images of what is under the Martian surface, providing centimeter-scale resolution of the geological structure of the subsurface (Norwegian Defense Research Institute).

In addition to the seven instruments, the rover features a coring drill, an Italian-made laser retroreflector (similar to those left by astronauts on the Moon and that will help position the vehicle from space in the future), a repository for samples (coaching system) where the sand or rocks collected on the Martian surface will be stored and sealed in tubes to bring them to Earth in an upcoming NASA mission, as well as the small Ingenuity helicopter.

7. What is the helicopter going to do?

It is a technological demonstrator who travels in the ‘belly’ of Perseverance. Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to fly in a controlled manner on another planet. It is an independent mission, high risk but also with potential rewards.

If the small spacecraft has difficulties, the scientific data collection of the main mission will not be affected, but if it flies as designed, in addition to providing high-resolution images of the red planet from new angles (as if it were a drone) , can serve as a reference for future projects. Upcoming missions to Mars could turn to second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations.

8. How big is the rover?

It is the size of a car and weighs 1,025 kilograms. It measures about 3 meters long, 2.7 meters wide and 2.2 meters high. Its structure and that of its associated equipment (navigation stage, descent stage and heat shield) are based on the design of its predecessor, the Curiosity rover, which continue exploring the surface of Mars.

9. How much did the mission cost?

According to the Planetary Society, an international organization dedicated to promoting space exploration and awareness, the cost of Mars 2020 Perseverance it is estimated at about $ 2.7 billion, including about $ 2,200 to develop the spacecraft, 243 for launch, and 300 for science operations that will take place during the rover’s at least two years (one Martian year) of operation.

10. Why is it called Perseverance?

This name, suggested by a 13-year-old high school student, Alexander Mather, was the winner in the school contest “Name the rover“, organized by NASA to baptize the mission. The heads of the agency considered that ‘Perseverance’ (perseverance in Spanish) captures the spirit of space exploration very well.

The essays of the finalist students in that contest, along with the 10,932,295 names and surnames of people who participated in another campaign, called “Send your name to Mars“were recorded on three silicon microchips that will travel the red planet aboard Perseverance.


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