Perseverance rover blasts off to Mars
It’s been a big week for space exploration. SpaceX’s Dragon Endeavour craft safely returned crewmembers from the International Space Station, culminating in the first splashdown the ocean has seen in 45 years. And, as Ben McAllister reports, a key Mars mission we actually featured here on the programme a few weeks ago got underway…
On the 30th of July 2020, a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida USA, to begin a 7 month, 480 million kilometre journey to Mars. Aboard is the Perseverance Mars rover.
The Rover was launched now as we are in a window known as the “closest approach” between the Earth and Mars. Because Mars is farther from the Sun, it takes about twice as long as Earth does to complete a lap of the solar system. This means that the two planets are at their closest only about once every two years; which is why it’s now, or 2022!
In some ways, Perseverance is like a slightly more developed big brother to Curiosity, the most recent previous Mars rover. In fact, many of its design, launch, and landing features are based on Curiosity, with a few extra new bells and whistles added.
The landing process will also be similar. The rover will reach the Martian atmosphere, and then have to complete the terrifying seven minute descent to the surface without any help from NASA.
The rover will enter Mars’ atmosphere travelling about 19000 km/h, and descend in three stages. First it will deploy an incredibly strong parachute to do the brunt of the work. Then, it will detach from the parachute and employ rocket boosters pointed downwards to counteract the rover's velocity. Finally, the rover itself will be lowered gently to the ground from the platform holding the rocket boosters, using what NASA calls the “sky crane”.
In contrast to the car-sized Curiosity, Perseverance is even bigger, has better wheels, and is equipped with new technology - including a fancy rock drill for taking samples of the rocky Martian surface, and its own helicopter drone called “Ingenuity”. If it’s successful, it will perform the first powered flight on the Martian surface - Mars’ own Wright brothers moment! It will then be used to help scout locations for Perseverance to visit.
But it isn’t just the kit which is different. Perseverance also has a brand new, exciting mission - a mission all about life on Mars!
One major goal is to search Mars for evidence of ancient microbial life; that is, looking for remnants and traces left behind by any small organisms which may have been present billions of years ago, when Mars was less dry and more supportive of life.
The second major goal is to test a bunch of different equipment and systems for possible future human habitation on the red planet: for example, testing a process for converting Mars’ carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen; and testing the suitability of a range of materials for use in future space suits intended to support humans living and working on the harsh, inhospitable Martian surface, where the temperature rarely gets above zero, abrasive dust storms can be frequent, and the incoming radiation levels - with no ozone or atmosphere to block them - can be lethal.
For now, as far as we know, Mars is the only planet in our solar system populated entirely by robots. However, if Perseverance is successful in paving the way for future human habitation, it may not belong to the robot overlords for long!