NASA Mars Launch 2020: Highlights From Perseverance Rover’s Journey



NASA’s Perseverance rover is headed to Mars, the third spacecraft to head that way this month.

Perseverance, a robotic wheeled vehicle designed to look for signs of past life on Mars, lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Thursday at 7:50 a.m. Eastern time. The launch was pushed back a couple of weeks by a series of technical delays and overcame challenges imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, which required many of its engineers to work from home.

The rover’s destination is a crater, Jezero, which was once a lake in the northern hemisphere of Mars. Scientists believe it is a promising location where signs of ancient Martian life could be preserved if life ever existed on Mars.

The Atlas 5 rocket lofted the spacecraft away from Earth and on a trajectory to arrive at Mars in six-and-a-half months. It follows July’s earlier launches by the United Arab Emirates and China. While Perseverance is last to leave, all three missions should arrive at the red planet at about the same time, in February.

For people at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which will be responsible for operating the mission during its journey to Mars, an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.2 provided a bit of an extra jolt to the countdown. It did not affect the launch, but employees working on the mission expressed their surprise on Twitter.

The launch was largely flawless, but a couple of hiccups emerged once it began its movements toward Mars.

First, a few hours after launch, NASA was having some trouble communicating with the spacecraft. “It’s something we’ve seen before with other Mars missions,” Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said during a post-launch news conference.

The large radio dishes of the Deep Space Network that communicate with distant spacecraft were receiving Perseverance’s radio signals loud and clear — in effect, too loud.

As Mr. Bridenstine was speaking, Matt Wallace, the deputy project manager, received a text message that engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had made the adjustments that allowed the dishes to lock onto the telemetry data.

Second, as the mission’s controllers on the ground looked through the telemetry, they learned that Perseverance had entered “safe mode” — a precautionary state when a spacecraft detects something not quite right and waits for instructions from Earth. In a statement, the agency said that part of the spacecraft was colder than expected while it traveled in Earth’s shadow. Temperatures have since warmed, and engineers are working to bring Perseverance back into normal working condition.

Perseverance is a car-size wheeled robot nearly identical in design to NASA’s previous Mars rover, Curiosity, which landed in 2012. However, Perseverance is headed to a different place — a crater named Jezero that was once a lake — carrying a different set of instruments. Curiosity was designed to look for habitable environments, and it found signs of a freshwater lake. Perseverance is to go a step farther and search for evidence of past life that might have lived in the lake at Jezero.

Perseverance is also carrying a couple of devices that are more fun than scientific: several cameras, which will record various views as the spacecraft zooms through the atmosphere en route to landing; and two microphones, which will be the first to record sounds on another planet.

It is carrying an experimental helicopter, too.

One of the crucial supplies that astronauts will need is oxygen, for breathing and as a rocket propellant.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, will take carbon dioxide molecules from the Martian atmosphere and split them into oxygen atoms and carbon monoxide.

MOXIE will try to demonstrate that is possible on the surface of the red planet. But the amount of oxygen it could produce — less than ounce per hour — is tiny.

“We’re only making about enough oxygen to keep a small dog alive,” said Michael Hecht, the principal investigator for MOXIE.

But if the idea works, the technique could be employed in the future on a much larger scale to fill up a rocket. “So astronauts in a future Mars mission could take off from Mars to come home,” he said.

Perseverance is also carrying samples of materials used in spacesuits, mounted on a target used to calibrate one of the rover’s instruments.

“When I send somebody to Mars in my spacesuit, I want to make sure that they stay alive that whole time,” Amy Ross, one of NASA’s spacesuit designers said during a news conference on Tuesday.

With Perseverance taking repeated measurements over a couple of years on Mars, “we can understand how our materials hold up or don’t in that environment,” she said.

Perseverance will land on Mars on Feb. 18 next year at 3:40 p.m. Eastern time.

Every 26 months, Earth and Mars come close to each other, which allows the quickest, most efficient trip from Earth to Mars. If the launch does not occur by the middle of August, NASA would have to wait until the next opportunity, in 2022.

Jezero crater was filled with water about 3.5 billion years ago when Mars was warmer and wetter. From orbit, earlier NASA spacecraft spotted a dried-up river on one side of Jezero and an outflow channel can be seen on the other side. The sediments of a fan-shape delta can be seen where the river spilled into the crater. No one knows if anything ever lived on Mars, but if it did, Jezero would be a prime place to look, scientists decided.



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