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Touchdown! NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover Safely Lands on Red Planet (Planetary Science)

The largest, most advanced rover NASA has sent to another world touched down on Mars Thursday, after a 203-day journey traversing 293 million miles (472 million kilometers). Confirmation of the successful touchdown was announced in mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California at 3:55 p.m. EST (12:55 p.m. PST).

Packed with groundbreaking technology, the Mars 2020 mission launched July 30, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The Perseverance rover mission marks an ambitious first step in the effort to collect Mars samples and return them to Earth.  

“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States, and space exploration globally – when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, so to speak, to rewrite the textbooks,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission embodies our nation’s spirit of persevering even in the most challenging of situations, inspiring, and advancing science and exploration. The mission itself personifies the human ideal of persevering toward the future and will help us prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.”

About the size of a car, the 2,263-pound (1,026-kilogram) robotic geologist and astrobiologist will undergo several weeks of testing before it begins its two-year science investigation of Mars’ Jezero Crater. While the rover will investigate the rock and sediment of Jezero’s ancient lakebed and river delta to characterize the region’s geology and past climate, a fundamental part of its mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. To that end, the Mars Sample Return campaign, being planned by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), will allow scientists on Earth to study samples collected by Perseverance to search for definitive signs of past life using instruments too large and complex to send to the Red Planet.

“Because of today’s exciting events, the first pristine samples from carefully documented locations on another planet are another step closer to being returned to Earth,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA. “Perseverance is the first step in bringing back rock and regolith from Mars. We don’t know what these pristine samples from Mars will tell us. But what they could tell us is monumental – including that life might have once existed beyond Earth.”

Some 28 miles (45 kilometers) wide, Jezero Crater sits on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Scientists have determined that 3.5 billion years ago the crater had its own river delta and was filled with water.

The power system that provides electricity and heat for Perseverance through its exploration of Jezero Crater is a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) provided it to NASA through an ongoing partnership to develop power systems for civil space applications.

Equipped with seven primary science instruments, the most cameras ever sent to Mars, and its exquisitely complex sample caching system – the first of its kind sent into space – Perseverance will scour the Jezero region for fossilized remains of ancient microscopic Martian life, taking samples along the way.  

“Perseverance is the most sophisticated robotic geologist ever made, but verifying that microscopic life once existed carries an enormous burden of proof,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “While we’ll learn a lot with the great instruments we have aboard the rover, it may very well require the far more capable laboratories and instruments back here on Earth to tell us whether our samples carry evidence that Mars once harbored life.”

Paving the Way for Human Missions

“Landing on Mars is always an incredibly difficult task and we are proud to continue building on our past success,” said JPL Director Michael Watkins. “But, while Perseverance advances that success, this rover is also blazing its own path and daring new challenges in the surface mission. We built the rover not just to land but to find and collect the best scientific samples for return to Earth, and its incredibly complex sampling system and autonomy not only enable that mission, they set the stage for future robotic and crewed missions.”

The Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrumentation 2 (MEDLI2) sensor suite collected data about Mars’ atmosphere during entry, and the Terrain-Relative Navigation system autonomously guided the spacecraft during final descent. The data from both are expected to help future human missions land on other worlds more safely and with larger payloads.

On the surface of Mars, Perseverance’s science instruments will have an opportunity to scientifically shine. Mastcam-Z is a pair of zoomable science cameras on Perseverance’s remote sensing mast, or head, that creates high-resolution, color 3D panoramas of the Martian landscape. Also located on the mast, the SuperCam uses a pulsed laser to study the chemistry of rocks and sediment and has its own microphone to help scientists better understand the property of the rocks, including their hardness.

Located on a turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm, the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) and the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instruments will work together to collect data on Mars’ geology close-up. PIXL will use an X-ray beam and suite of sensors to delve into a rock’s elemental chemistry. SHERLOC’s ultraviolet laser and spectrometer, along with its Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering (WATSON) imager, will study rock surfaces, mapping out the presence of certain minerals and organic molecules, which are the carbon-based building blocks of life on Earth.

The rover chassis is home to three science instruments, as well. The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) is the first ground-penetrating radar on the surface of Mars and will be used to determine how different layers of the Martian surface formed over time. The data could help pave the way for future sensors that hunt for subsurface water ice deposits.

Also with an eye on future Red Planet explorations, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) technology demonstration will attempt to manufacture oxygen out of thin air – the Red Planet’s tenuous and mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere. The rover’s Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) instrument, which has sensors on the mast and chassis, will provide key information about present-day Mars weather, climate, and dust.

Currently attached to the belly of Perseverance, the diminutive Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstration that will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Project engineers and scientists will now put Perseverance through its paces, testing every instrument, subsystem, and subroutine over the next month or two. Only then will they deploy the helicopter to the surface for the flight test phase. If successful, Ingenuity could add an aerial dimension to exploration of the Red Planet in which such helicopters serve as a scouts or make deliveries for future astronauts away from their base.

Once Ingenuity’s test flights are complete, the rover’s search for evidence of ancient microbial life will begin in earnest.

“Perseverance is more than a rover, and more than this amazing collection of men and women that built it and got us here,” said John McNamee, project manager of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission at JPL. “It is even more than the 10.9 million people who signed up to be part of our mission. This mission is about what humans can achieve when they persevere. We made it this far. Now, watch us go.”

More About the Mission

A primary objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology research, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith, paving the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA, will send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission and the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter technology demonstration for NASA.

For more about Perseverance:

https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/


and

https://nasa.gov/perseverance


Featured image: Members of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover team watch in mission control as the first images arrive moments after the spacecraft successfully touched down on Mars, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls


Provided by NASA

MOXIE Could Help Future Rockets Launch Off Mars (Planetary Science)

NASA’s Perseverance rover carries a device to convert Martian air into oxygen that, if produced on a larger scale, could be used not just for breathing, but also for fuel.

One of the hardest things about sending astronauts to Mars will be getting them home. Launching a rocket off the surface of the Red Planet will require industrial quantities of oxygen, a crucial part of propellant: A crew of four would need about 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of it to produce thrust from 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel.

Engineers lower MOXIE into the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

That’s a lot of propellant. But instead of shipping all that oxygen, what if the crew could make it out of thin (Martian) air? A first-generation oxygen generator aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover will test technology for doing exactly that.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, is an experimental instrument that stands apart from Perseverance’s primary science. One of the rover’s main purposes is capturing returnable rock samples that could carry signs of ancient microbial life. While Perseverance has a suite of instruments geared toward helping achieve that goal, MOXIE is focused solely on the engineering required for future human exploration efforts.

Since the dawn of the space age, researchers have talked about in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU. Think of it as living off the land and using what’s available in the local environment. That includes things like finding water ice that could be melted for use or sheltering in caves, but also generating oxygen for rocket fuel and, of course, breathing.

Breathing is just a side benefit of MOXIE’s true goal, said Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the instrument’s principal investigator. Rocket propellant is the heaviest consumable resource that astronauts will need, so being able to produce oxygen at their destination would make the first crewed trip to Mars easier, safer, and cheaper.

“What people typically ask me is whether MOXIE is being developed so astronauts have something to breathe,” Hecht said. “But rockets breathe hundreds of times as much oxygen as people.”

An illustration of MOXIE and its components. An air pump pulls in carbon dioxide gas from the Martian atmosphere, which is then regulated and fed to the Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE), where it is electrochemically split to produce pure oxygen. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Making Oxygen Requires Heat

Mars’ atmosphere poses a major challenge for human life and rocket propellant production. It’s only 1% as thick as Earth’s atmosphere and is 95% carbon dioxide.

MOXIE pulls in that air with a pump, then uses an electrochemical process to separate two oxygen atoms from each molecule of carbon dioxide, or CO2. As the gases flow through the system, they are analyzed to check how much oxygen has been produced, how pure it is, and how efficiently the system is working. All the gases are vented back into the atmosphere after each experiment is run.

Powering this electrochemical conversion requires a lot of heat – about 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius). Because of those high temperatures, MOXIE, which is a little larger than a toaster, features a variety of heat-tolerant materials. Special 3D-printed nickel alloy parts help distribute the heat within the instrument, while superlight insulation called aerogel minimizes the power needed to keep it at operating temperatures. The outside of MOXIE is coated in a thin layer of gold, which is an excellent reflector of infrared heat and keeps those blistering temperatures from radiating into other parts of Perseverance.

“MOXIE is designed to make about 6 to 10 grams of oxygen per hour – just about enough for a small dog to breathe,” said Asad Aboobaker, a MOXIE systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “A full-scale system geared to make (propellant for the flight home) would need to scale up oxygen production by about 200 times what MOXIE will create.”

Video: MOXIE engineer Asad Aboobaker of JPL explains how the instrument works in this video interview. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Future Martians

Hecht estimates that a full-scale MOXIE system on Mars might be a bit larger than a household stove and weigh around 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) – almost as much as Perseverance itself. Work is ongoing to develop a prototype for one in the near future.

The team expects to run MOXIE about 10 times over the course of one Mars year (two Earth years), allowing them to watch how well it works in varying seasons. The results will inform the design of future oxygen generators.

“The commitment to developing MOXIE shows that NASA is serious about this,” Hecht said. “MOXIE isn’t the complete answer, but it’s a critical piece of it. If successful, it will show that future astronauts can rely on this technology to help get them home safely from Mars.”

More About the Mission

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA in cooperation with ESA (the European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.

For more about Perseverance:

mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/

nasa.gov/perseverance

Provided by NASA JPL

Perseverance Launches to Hunt for Signs of Ancient Martian Life (Planetary Science / Astronomy)

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:50 a.m. EDT on July 30, 2020.

The Perseverance rover mission will address high-priority science goals for Mars exploration.

Developed under NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, it will seek signs of past microbial life and characterize the planet’s climate and geology.

It will also collect samples of Martian rocks and dust for a future Mars Sample Return mission to Earth, while paving the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

Perseverance will land in Jezero Crater on Mars on February 18, 2021.

Home to a lake billions of years ago, Jezero isn’t a typical Mars crater.

The car-sized Perseverance is also the largest, heaviest robotic Mars rover NASA has built.

The rover is about 3 m (10 feet) long not including the robotic arm, 2.7 m (9 feet) wide and 2.1 m (7 feet) tall. But at 1,025 kg (2,260 pounds), it weighs less than a compact car.

Its robotic arm is equipped with a rotating turret, which includes a rock drill, science instruments and a camera.

But while Perseverance’s arm is 2.1 m (7 feet) long, just like Curiosity’s, its turret weighs more — 45 kg (99 pounds) — because it carries larger instruments and a larger drill for coring. The drill will cut intact rock cores, and they’ll be placed in sample tubes via a complex storage system.

Perseverance also has a six-wheel, rocker-bogie design derived from all of NASA’s Mars rovers to date that helps to maintain a relatively constant weight on each of the rover’s wheels and minimizes tilt.

The wheels are slightly narrower and taller than Curiosity’s but are similarly machined out of a rigid, lightweight aluminum alloy.

Both Curiosity and Perseverance have wheels lined with grousers — raised treads that are specially designed for the Martian desert.

Fig: This artist’s concept depicts NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance on the surface of the Red Planet. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Perseverance is carrying seven different scientific instruments:

(i) Mastcam-Z is an advanced camera system with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging capability with the ability to zoom;

(ii) SuperCam is an instrument that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy at a distance;

(iii) Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) is an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and high-resolution imager, which will map the fine-scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials;

(iv) Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) is a spectrometer that will provide fine-scale imaging and uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser to map mineralogy and organic compounds;

(v) The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) is a technology demonstration that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide;

(vi) Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) is a set of sensors that will provide measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity, and dust size and shape;

(vii) Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) is a ground-penetrating radar that will provide centimeter-scale resolution of the geologic structure of the subsurface.

Another special feature on Perseverance can be found on the aft crossbeam: a plate that contains three silicon chips stenciled with the names of approximately 10.9 million people from around the world who participated in the online ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ campaign from May to September 2019.

The fingernail-sized chips also contain the essays of 155 finalists in NASA’s ‘Name the Rover’ essay contest.

The chips share space on an anodized plate with a laser-etched graphic depicting Earth and Mars joined by the star that gives light to both and a message in Morse code in the Sun’s rays: ‘Explore as one.’

Perseverance is also bringing a twin-rotor, solar-powered helicopter named Ingenuity to test out aerial flight on another planet for the first time.

Perseverance is ferrying 23 cameras to the Red Planet — the most ever flown in the history of deep-space exploration. Two cameras are installed on the Ingenuity helicopter.

References: (1) https://www.nasa.gov/perseverance/overview/ (2) https://www.planetary.org/space-images/jezero-crater-mars (3) https://theuncoverreality.wordpress.com/2020/07/31/nasas-mars-2020-rover-will-have-23-cameras-astronomy-mission-science-and-technology/