I missed seeing the Mars launch this morning, but I have a really good excuse. I was looking at Mars in my telescope. I got up at 3 a.m., grabbed an eyeful of the Red Planet and then returned to bed but woke up a half-hour too late. Not to worry. NASA pulled it off without a hitch. When I awoke and fired up the computer, smiles on the faces of the NASA folks told the story. What a great way to start the day.
Perseverance will land the same way the Curiosity rover did back in 2012 — via parachute and sky crane.
Seven months from now on Feb. 18, 2021 the Perseverance rover will descend via parachute and sky crane to the crater Jezero located in Syrtis Major, a large, thumb-shaped volcanic region in its southern hemisphere. Coincidentally it was the same feature I observed through the telescope at dawn and one of the planet’s most prominent dark markings.
An asteroid impact excavated the 30-mile-wide (49 km) crater 3.5 billion years ago. Later, Jezero filled with water and became a lake. As the Martian climate changed and the lake dried up, water deposited layers of sediments. Within those sediments may be traces of possible Martian microbes which Perseverance will assist in finding.
Perseverance will use its drill to gather up to 30 pencil-sized core samples in sealed tubes and then cache at a desired location on the surface. A future rover mission will return to the cache, retrieve and package the tubes, then blast them into orbit with a small rocket. A waiting orbiter would maneuver to the container — the first time two spacecraft would rendezvous in Martian orbit — grab it and then set course for Earth.
During its nominal year-long mission the rover will busy itself with many tasks including serving as the command center for piloting the first-ever helicopter on Mars. Aptly named Ingenuity, the craft resembles a drone but with really fast-spinning propellers to provide the lift it requires in the thin Martian atmosphere. Although radio signals travel at the speed of light they take about a half-hour to reach Mars from Earth. That means no one can fly the machine in real time except the rover. It will command Ingenuity to areas of interest and then safely return it to home base.
Perseverance is also equipped with two microphones, one to tune in to the rover’s entry, descent and landing and another to listen to ambient sounds (like the wind) on Mars. Assuming all goes well this will be the first successful attempt to listen to Mars thanks in large part to efforts by the Planetary Society. Its co-founder Carl Sagan wrote a letter to NASA in 1996 urging the agency to send a microphone to Mars. I’m very excited about the opportunity to hear the planet; this new aural dimension will make Mars that much more real.
Perseverance also carries an experimental device called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment) which will produce oxygen from Mars’s predominately carbon dioxide atmosphere using a process called solid oxide electrolysis. This will be an important first step in producing on-site oxygen for fuel during future human missions to the planet. Naturally, the rover bristles with cameras — 23 in all — plus ground penetrating radar to study Martian geology below the surface. There are even samples of spacesuit materials that will be exposed to the weather to assist in the design of protective suits for future astronauts. One day women and men will kick up red dust 60 million miles (95 million km) from home while doing one of the things humans do best: being curious.