Last July 30th, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket blasted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. On February 18, 2021, 203 days later, and having travelled 293 million miles, the spacecraft reached Mars. The the car-size Perseverance, the centerpiece of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, entered the Mars atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour.
Ideally, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California would guide Percy, as some are calling it, to land at the right place. Unfortunately, this was not possible. Mars is currently 128 million miles away, and a radio signal takes 11 minutes and 22 seconds to get from Earth to Mars. Instead, Percy used onboard computers with artificial intelligence as its autonomous guidance system to avoid hazardous terrain in the target area. Perseverance was going to navigate on her own. The spacecraft encountered a temperature of 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit as it blazed toward the surface of Mars, which caused a temporary blackout, as expected.
After ejecting its heat shield, the spacecraft deployed a 70-foot-diameter parachute while still going nearly twice the speed of sound. After ditching the parachute, the craft lit up its rocket thrusters to slow down further, and then a system known as a sky crane lowered the rover the final distance to the surface. The video above of the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of the Mars mission is gripping and shows how NASA was able to pull off such an amazing feat. There were thousands of things which could have gone wrong. In a second equally thrilling video, scientists and engineers describe “7 Minutes to Mars: NASA’s Perseverance Rover Attempts Most Dangerous Landing Yet“.
The goal was to land inside the 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater, which scientists say is the ideal place to look for signs of life on the planet. It is believed to have previously been a lake as big as Lake Tahoe. The landing put the rover in exactly the optimum place. The rover, about the size of a small car, weighs about 1 ton and is 10 feet long by 9 feet wide by 7 feet tall. It has a 7 foot long robotic arm which has a robotic hand. The hand has a camera, a chemical analyzer, and a rock drill. Perseverance is nuclear powered with a plutonium generator provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. The power supply will generate electricity and charge the rover’s pair of lithium-ion batteries.
The six-wheeled robot will be looking for signs of past Martian life. It will drill and remove samples of soil and rock. The plan is for a future mission to go to Mars and bring the samples back to Earth where they can be studied in laboratories.
Perseverance is the first multibillion-dollar NASA mission to Mars in nine years. It almost immediately produced two low-resolution images of the landing site. In the days ahead we will be seeing high resolution color images from some of the craft’s 23 cameras. One of the many leading edge technologies aboard Perseverance is a four pound helicopter called Ingenuity. The helicopter will drop from the underbelly of the rover, the rover will pull ahead, and the helicopter will fly. The helicopter has been under development for years. It is an aeronautical engineering feat to be able to fly an aircraft autonomously above the surface of another world. The world will be amazed with the incredible scientific and engineering firsts, but the question remains why should be spending billions to explore Mars? I believe there are a number of good reasons.
Scientists theorize Mars was once a relatively warm and habitable world. The curiosity is intense about what the planet was like billions of years ago. It could help us better understand the evolution of Earth. There are also reasons to colonize Mars. Humans could provide more in-depth research than unmanned robots. There is also an economic interest in resources the red planet may have. Pundits believe the settlement of other planets could decrease the odds of human extinction.
I have listened to debates about this. Some say we should spend the money here and fix the problems which could end life on Earth, things such as climate warming and pandemics. Others argue even if we solve those problems, there is still the risk of a nuclear war which wipes out the world’s population. Colonizing other planets is a plan B.
The first step is to colonize the Moon as a gateway to Mars and beyond. An opportunity exists to figure out how to separate oxygen from CO2 and then liquify it to create rocket fuel to return to Earth or on to other planets. NASA has a plan for the Moon called Artemis. I’ll write about this another time.