In some rare but welcome positive news, the new rover Perseverance (a.k.a. Percy) safely landed on Mars on February 18 at 20:55 UTC. The rover is equipped with seven cameras uniquely tasked with filming its entry, descent and landing, which allowed NASA to collect over 30 gigabytes of information and more than 23,000 images.
If you haven’t seen it, the landing is truly something to behold. Given the new inclusion of an onboard microphone, it is also the first time we have ever been able to hear what Mars sounds like. Just go check it out on YouTube, I’ll wait.
Now that you’re back, let’s run through the nitty-gritty of what is new on the rover and what that means for exploration on Mars. This is the largest and heaviest rover ever sent to the red planet, 100kg heavier than its SUV-size predecessor. The rover will get to benefit from exciting new technologies and systems built across almost 10 years of advancements since Curiosity’s landing.
This time, the rover won’t be alone. Perseverance was sent alongside Ingenuity, a helicopter drone. All electronics on both devices are built to survive extreme conditions, from the G-force of leaving Earth’s orbit to Mars’s temperatures of -80 to -100 °C at night.
While Curiosity relied on constant intervention from NASA HQ, the navigation systems on Perseverance are autonomous thanks to a machine learning algorithm that uses optical data to find its path.
The new rover also comes with many new parts that will aid future missions to Mars and provide an incredibly large volume of data for research.
Oxygen generation will be essential for future manned missions to Mars. While current technologies used in the International Space Station are effective, they also require shipments of water to generate the gas through electrolysis. NASA is using the rover to test a new method that compresses air in Mars’s low pressure atmosphere to Earth’s sea level pressure through a lightweight air pump. The pressurised gas is then passed through a ceramic electrolyte to produce oxygen gas and carbon monoxide. If the prototype is a success, we could bypass the need to send regular water shipments to another planet.
The rover is equipped with a core sampling drill able to produce cylindrical samples of Martian soil and analyse their biosignatures based on reactions to UV light. This will be used to find chemicals often associated with the presence of past life. The samples will then be dropped safely in marked locations, where another rover is planned to arrive in 2026 to recollect them and send them in orbit for an earth-bound vehicle to bring them to NASA HQ. These would be the first samples of Martian soil to ever make it back to Earth.
An onboard ground-penetrating radar imager sensor will give a visualisation of up to ten meters under Mars’s surface and potentially find traces of water. This will give researchers the ability to learn more about the geology of the planet’s surface without requiring invasive drilling that could compromise the rover.
Last but not least, Ingenuity is the first powered flight vehicle on another planet. As the first of its kind, it is mostly there to provide data on how to improve flight designs for future missions and as a case study for NASA engineers.
The drone is fully autonomous and uses a suite of sensors to inform its flight algorithm. Communication from Earth to Mars comes with a 20-minute delay, so we will unfortunately never get to witness the $80 million prototype being controlled with a joystick. However, the device still comes with some intricate engineering.
Martian air is not very dense, so flight mechanics that rely on pushing air downwards are less effective. Ingenuity’s blades are made of carbon composite to minimise weight and run at 2500 rpm, five times faster than helicopter blades on Earth. This means the vehicle’s blades spin about 40 times each second. To achieve any lift even with this many rotations, the drone’s weight had to be capped at less than 1.8 kg. Ingenuity’s motors and cameras are fully powered by solar panels for a daily flight time of 90 seconds. According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the first picture taken by the historical helicopter will be a selfie of the Perseverance rover, which is likely to be one of the next images we will receive from the rover.
It feels like we have discovered so much more about Mars since Curiosity’s arrival in 2012. The still-operational and decade-old rover was sent with four objectives: determine whether life ever existed on Mars, characterise the planet’s climate and geology, and prepare for human exploration. Now, Percy lands with the same exact goals. One thing is certain: the next decade will be an exciting time for space exploration.
Image: NASA (fair use)