Perseverance comes in for a landing
Science | NASA has high hopes for the latest Mars rover
by John Dawson
Posted 2/18/21, 04:08 pm
After a seven-month journey covering more than 290 million miles, NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on the red planet on Thursday. Parachuting into the Jezero crater, the craft is the first American rover to land on Mars since the car-size Curiosity arrived in 2012.
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will look for signs of ancient life, collect samples, and gather information on the climate of the red planet to help plan future manned missions. But Perseverance’s sidekick, a helicopter drone scheduled to deploy on March 19, might steal the show.
Scientists picked Perseverance’s landing site—an apparent dry river delta feeding into the Jezero crater—because it seemed like a promising place to look for signs of ancient microbial life. If water flowed on Mars, the crater could have functioned as a lake. “Jezero would have been a place that was habitable,” project scientist Kenneth Farley said. “Life as we know it could have lived in that lake, and the mud of a delta is really good at preserving the biosignatures of life.”
But it could be decades before scientists will be able to look at some of the evidence for themselves. Perseverance can collect rock and sediment samples but can’t analyze them. Instead, the craft will store the material and wait for a retrieval mission that might not occur until the 2030s, according to NASA.
In the meantime, the Perseverance rover has years to study Mars. When Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, NASA planned a two-year mission. Nearly nine years later, the rover is still exploring. Perseverance’s thermoelectric generator, which captures heat from a chunk of decaying plutonium and converts it to energy, could supply power for up to 14 years, according to the Department of Energy, which designed it.
Besides tools to take soil samples, the 2,260-pound rover carries all the scientific equipment it can manage. Designers outfitted Perseverance with two different kinds of spectrometers, a surface radar, a weather station, and a variety of cameras to take in the sights.
About a month into its mission, Perseverance will release its most significant payload: the robotic Ingenuity helicopter. The drone will let scientists conduct the first ever powered flight test on another planet. Flying in the thin Martian atmosphere presented a challenge for Ingenuity’s designers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “You can’t just scale a helicopter designed to fly on Earth and expect it to work on Mars,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, told Smithsonian Magazine.
Mars has an atmospheric pressure less than 1 percent of Earth’s at surface level. Designers kept Ingenuity light. The drone’s tissue-box-sized fuselage means the whole thing weighs just 4 pounds. To generate enough lift, Ingenuity’s pair of 4-foot-long, counter-rotating blades spin at 2,400 rpm, about eight-times faster than a normal helicopter.
To practice under similar conditions on Earth, designers would have to get their drone well above the altitudes where commercial aircraft fly. But instead of risking the $80-million project at such altitudes, designers tested the lightweight Ingenuity in a vacuum chamber at a JPL facility in California.
While Ingenuity doesn’t have scientific instruments, it will carry a camera. Officials plan on five test launches and hope the craft will fly up to 16 feet off the ground. While aloft, the drone will snap pictures and potentially act as an aerial scout for Perseverance. If successful, Ingenuity could pave the way for more robotic fliers to assist rovers on future missions.