Perseverance Rover on Its Way to Mars

Perseverance Rover on Its Way to Mars

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover, carrying the Ingenuity helicopter, began its journey to Mars this morning. It is the third Mars probe to launch from Earth in the past two weeks, joining spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China as the Red Planet continues to entice scientists to unveil its past, especially whether life existed there in ancient times.

Liftoff aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket was on time at 7:50 am ET.

Credit: United Launch Alliance

Perseverance, also called Mars 2020, will arrive at Mars on February 18, 2021.

Between now and then, it must successfully traverse the emptiness of space under the watchful, if remote, eyes of its ground controllers communicating through NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) of antennas in California, Spain and Australia.  A glitch in that pathway occurred soon after the spacecraft separated from the Atlas V.  While still so close to Earth, the signal from the spacecraft was so strong it overpowered the sensitive DSN receivers.

They were quickly reconfigured and communications established, but controllers then discovered the spacecraft had put itself into safe mode after onboard systems detected a temperature anomaly.

Speaking at a post-launch press conference while all of this was unfolding, Deputy Project Manager Matt Wallace from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) conveyed that such anomalies are not unusual and did not seem particularly worried. A press release later in the day said the spacecraft probably was “a little colder than expected” while it was briefly in Earth’s shadow. “Right now, the Mars 2020 mission is completing a full health assessment on the spacecraft and is working to return the spacecraft to a nominal configuration for its journey to Mars.”

Missions to Mars, particularly for spacecraft intended to land on the surface, are nail-biters.  The multi-decade history of robotic Mars exploration is full of both successes and failures.  After surviving the 6.5 month to Mars, Perservance will also have to endure the “seven minutes of terror” while it slows down from 12,000 miles per hour and descends through the thin atmosphere for a soft landing at Jezero crater.  Perservance’s cousin, Curiosity, used the same “skycrane” system when it arrived in 2012.

Curiosity is still operating, as is a stationary lander, InSight, that arrived in 2018.  In all, NASA already has successfully landed four rovers and four stationary landers on Mars: Viking 1 and 2 (stationary), 1976; Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover, 1997; Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, 2004; Phoenix (stationary), 2008; Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, 2012; and InSight (stationary), 2018.

Each lander and rover carries unique experiments and Perseverance is no exception. This rover’s main task is searching for evidence of ancient life on Mars, but it also is delivering a tiny helicopter, Ingenuity, that will make the first powered flight on another world, and a system to collect and store (“cache”) samples of Martian rocks and soil that will be picked up in future years by other spacecraft for return to Earth.

Perseverance also has an experiment called MOXIE — Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment — to demonstrate if it is possible to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars, necessary for eventual human trips there.

Despite NASA’s many successes, landing on Mars or even getting into orbit is not for the faint of heart. Another NASA probe, Mars Polar Lander, crashed onto the surface in 1999 instead of making a soft landing. The Soviet Union attempted four landings in the 1970s, but only one survived long enough to send back a signal and it ended after 20 seconds. Europe has tried twice, with no success.

Europe and Russia are teamed on the ExoMars rover that also was intended to launch this year, but technical issues exacerbated by travel restrictions due to the cornoavirus pandemic forced them to postpone it to 2022, the next time Earth and Mars are correctly aligned.  Those “windows” when the two planets are favorably positioned in their orbits about the Sun occur just every 26 months, which is why there is so much activity at the moment.

No one will rest easy until Perseverance is safely on the surface in February and even that is just the beginning. Perseverance is the first of a three-spacecraft “campaign” to return samples to Earth, Mars Sample Return (MSR).

Example of the 43 sample tubes on Mars Perseverance.

The rover has 43 small cigar-shaped tubes it will fill with Martian soil and rocks and leave on the surface. The tubes are to be retrieved by a Fetch Rover and placed into a container that will be launched into orbit around Mars — the first launch to take place on another planet. There it will meet up with a third spacecraft, Earth Return Orbiter, for the journey back to Earth.

NASA is partnering with ESA to build the Fetch Rover and Earth Return Orbiter. The goal is to launch both in 2026 with the samples back on Earth in 2031.

The mission is exciting, but also very expensive.

Perseverance itself cost $2.7 billion for development, launch, operations and analysis, plus $85 million for the Ingenuity helicopter ($80 million for development, $5 million for operations).

During a press conference this week, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, and ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker, said the other two spacecraft will cost close to $5 billion.

ESA expects to spend 1.5 billion Euros ($1.8 billion).  Zurbuchen said NASA’s share is on the order of $2.5-3 billion, though that is a “first guess,” not the result of the rigorous process NASA ultimately will use before committing to the program’s cost and schedule. And that does not include the cost of the biologically secure ground facility that must be built to house the samples and associated equipment to analyze them. ESA’s governing Ministerial Council committed to the first third of its share of the program last year. Whether NASA will be able to win congressional approval remains to be seen as the agency also needs substantially more funds to execute the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024.

The first step, though, is for those spacecraft to have something to retrieve, making Perserverance’s success all that much more nerve-racking.

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