March 2, 2021

The Spanish science that ‘Perseverance’ leads to Mars


The Perseverance rover – Percy, for its creators and friends – ‘speaks’ a little bit of Spanish. NASA’s next science vehicle will arrive at the Jezero crater on Mars, if everything goes fine, this Thursday, February 18 about 9:55 p.m..

The Moon, Mars and the sea of ​​clouds: a unique spectacle from the summits of La Palma

The Moon, Mars and the sea of ​​clouds: a unique spectacle from the summits of La Palma

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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.

To achieve all this, Perseverance carries seven instruments that will collect images and data on the geology, atmosphere and environmental conditions of the red planet, trying to find potential signs of past microbial life. It will also test various technologies, such as a small helicopter and an oxygen generation experiment, in addition to storing samples from Mars to be brought back to Earth on future missions.

Of all the instruments that carries NASA’s fifth Martian rover (after Sojourner in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity in 2004, and Curiosity in 2012), two tools have an important participation of Spanish science: MEDA and SuperCam.

MEDA: much more than an environmental station

Thanks to MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, for its acronym in English) we can know, almost at any time of the day and every day, what the weather is on Mars. “And I say daily, with a certain joke, because we have not yet defined the calendar of Martian holidays,” laughs José Antonio Rodríguez Manfredi, engineer at the Center for Astrobiology (CAB, CSIC-INTA) and principal investigator of this project.

As explained to SINC, MEDA incorporates sensors at different points of the vehicle to take images of the Martian sky and measure the wind (horizontally and vertically), radiation from the sun, atmospheric pressure, relative humidity, temperature and infrared radiation and ultraviolet. “All this, together, will allow us to see how the Martian atmosphere and dust behave,” he says.

This dust is precisely one of the most important agents in the red planet’s atmosphere. The particles of regolith they can be tremendously fine and cause the dynamics of the atmosphere to change completely throughout the planet: “They can serve as a ‘screen’ for radiation and charge it with energy, increasing the temperature by 10 or 12 degrees; and it can affect behavior of other instruments in a very serious way, blocking the filters “, the researcher details.

But the importance of MEDA does not stop at being a mere “meteorological station” on the red planet. It is, next to MOXIE (an experiment that will try to generate oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide), the first instrument to join the human exploration program for Mars. “Of course we are going to do science, but it is also important for future human missions to the planet,” says Rodríguez Manfredi.

Starting on Sun 1 (first day on Mars, after arrival), MEDA will be able to make its start-up and first check that the systems are working well. Then the instrument will always remain active, even at times when the rest of the rover is idle or idle, thanks to radioisotope generator that provides constant energy to Perseverance.

“To study the environment, we need repeatability and consistency to collect the data. If the rover he’s ‘sleeping’, perfect of us. As long as the cables are not removed, our computer will continue to collect and, when it ‘wakes up’, MEDA will deliver the data to Perseverance so that it can send it to Earth, “explains the Spanish engineer.

MEDA, designed and manufactured by Airbus, is the third Spanish instrument sent to Mars, being the third environmental station led by the Astrobiology Center after REMS (Curiosity) and TWINS (InSight), still active.

From these “older sisters,” as the researcher calls them, the CAB has learned a lot, both from their achievements and from their problems. Among the main differences with its predecessors, it stands out that MEDA is three times the size in volume and mass, incorporates technological advances that other stations do not have, it will be able to measure more magnitudes and take more images of the planet.

SuperCam: five techniques in one instrument

For its part, the instrument SuperCam de Perseverance will be able to examine Martian rocks and minerals using five different techniques. On a mast in which various technologies are coupled, this camera, which incorporates a laser and several spectrometers, will help to deepen the geological knowledge of the Martian surface. It will analyze different types of soils on the planet that could preserve life, as well as substances and elements toxic to humans.

But combining several techniques in a single instrument brings a problem: the data that is measured with one technique may be astonishing or unpublished, while another may consider it inconclusive or even irrelevant. This is where the work of the team of the researcher from the University of Valladolid (Uva) Fernando Rull comes in: a calibrator is needed that gives meaning to all these data.

“Normally, each technique and instrument has its own calibration system. But when the instrument is coordinated, a new system must be set up that is capable of calibrating each of the techniques and, in addition, establish a correlation between them”, he explains to SINC the researcher.

The calibration system is a panel of 28 samples, with one-centimeter-diameter discs that have a very precise chemical composition, placed near the SuperCam mast, just above the radioisotope generator that provides power to the entire mission. “Each technique will provide information on what it analyzes, but correlating all that data is novel. That is why SuperCam is the most complex instrument that the rover“Rull emphasizes.

SuperCam is an instrument developed jointly by the Los Alamos National Laboratory (USA), the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetary Sciences (IRAP, France), the National Center for Space Studies of France, the University of Hawaii and the University of Valladolid.

Robledo antennas, keys to communication

Another of the essential points of this mission, also with Spanish involvement, is communication with the rover. The antennas of the Deep Space Network located in Canberra (Australia), Goldstone (California, USA) and Robledo de Chavela (Madrid) are essential both to send instructions to Perseverance and to receive all your data.

Regarding the Spanish station, NASA confirms to SINC that the DSS 63 antenna, 70 meters long, will be the one in communication with the mission until it enters the Martian atmosphere, around 9:48 p.m. ( Spanish peninsular time), “at which time communication will be lost and control will be carried out from California,” they detail. And another of the antennas at this station, DSS-56, built by INTA and inaugurated last January, will also receive signals from the Perseverance mission.

On the other hand, the antennas of the American and Spanish stations will be those that communicate with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), a satellite in orbit that will pick up the first signal from the rover as soon as it has landed on the Martian surface. If Perseverance is successful, it will join the more than 40 missions supported by the Robledo de Chavela Station.

The biggest challenges after years of work

With only a few hours to go before Perseverance lands on the surface of Mars, Rodríguez Manfredi and Rull look back and recall the greatest difficulties of these years of working hand in hand with NASA.

On the part of the MEDA researcher, he acknowledges that time has been the greatest challenge in his part of the mission. “This started with a call from NASA in July 2014, and since then there has not been a weekend where we have not had to run to be prepared,” he acknowledges.

Rodríguez Manfredi’s team had to work “in record time” for six years before launching the mission at the end of July 2020: “We had to start from scratch to conceive the instrument, design it, do analysis before manufacturing the parts. , build it, test it, calibrate it and deliver it to NASA. ”

He admits that he now breathes a little calmer, although he is still watching the calendar, waiting for Perseverance to arrive safely on Thursday night. From then on, his wish is to take advantage of the ability of this instrument to do what he likes the most: “Science on Mars and contribute to the advancement of knowledge. It is a dream come true for me.”

For his part, Rull remembers all the decisions that were going to affect this calibration system. “Defining the 28 samples and validating them has been a very complicated process,” he acknowledges, “but placing and fixing them on a support, which can withstand the enormous efforts of launching and, above all, landing, has been the greatest challenge.”

This researcher regrets that he cannot follow the launch and mission progress in situ, from Cape Canaveral (USA) or any of the NASA monitoring centers, due to the limitations of the pandemic. “This is one of the things that has given us the most pain and pain, so we will be watching from home,” he concludes.

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