On Thursday, Feb. 18, NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover finally landed on the face of Mars. For many years, the “Red Planet” has been considered a possible location for future generations to inhabit. The newly landed rover sets a precedent for collecting further scientific knowledge of this interesting planet.
The rover, named Perseverance, is around the size of a small car and weighs about 2000 pounds. Since it was launched on July 30 of 2020, Perseverance has traveled 300 hundred million miles to land on Mars. Perseverance will stay for one Mars year, or 687 Earth days.
Before Perseverance’s landing, which was recorded by the rover, scientists had never witnessed a Mars landing pictorially in real-time, they had only been able to record the movements of the rovers through data as they descended into Mars’s atmosphere. Perseverance used a parachute and a skycrane, a machine that works similarly to a heavy-lift helicopter with tethering cables, to lower the rover. Unlike Perseverance, the skycrane did not land safely and instead crash-landed two minutes after the rover. Perseverance snapped a picture of the incident’s immediate aftermath.
Perseverance’s landing site was in the Jezero Crater, an old dried-up lake bed on the face of Mars that is 28 miles wide. After five years of landing site selection, the Jezero Crater was carefully chosen over 60 other possible locations because it tells the story of Earth’s sister planet’s watery history, learning about this history will help the mission’s goals. According to NASA, ancient rivers on Mars’s surface pooled into a crater and created a lake. rivers carried clay minerals into the lake and microbial life could have lived there during the wet times.
Perseverance is a part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, costing NASA 2.7 billion dollars. Its main goal is to determine if Mars could possibly sustain future human life. Perseverance’s main tasks are to collect rock samples to send back to Earth, try to identify signs of ancient life, observe Mars’s landscapes to uncover its history, and test technology that, in the future, may allow Mars to sustain human life.
According to NASA, one of Perseverance’s testing instruments is designed to demonstrate how future astronauts might be able to create oxygen from the Mars atmosphere. The instrument is called MOXIE, which stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. MOXIE operates similarly to a tree: MOXIE pulls in the air with a pump and uses an electrochemical process to separate the oxygen atom from each carbon dioxide molecule. However, oxygen on Mars is only about 0.13% of the atmosphere while Earth’s oxygen is 21% of the atmosphere. Therefore, MOXIE produces much less oxygen per hour than the average tree, around ten grams an hour.
Since its landing, the rover has taken a few photos of the martian planet, but it will take a few months before it starts digging into its real jobs. According to space.com, an astronomy-focused news site, NASA’s crew will spend the rover’s first few days on Mars, also called sol days, which are about 24 hours and 37 minutes, to simply allow perseverance adequate time to adjust in light of its new location. NASA’s team spent the first four sol days adjusting Perseverance’s software while on the planet and switching it to new software that is tailored to Mars terrain. They also did multiple health checks in the rover and charged its battery. Perseverance took its first color panorama photo on sol 3, and they began testing out more of the rover’s instruments after that milestone.
Attached to Perseverance is a helicopter named Ingenuity, meant for testing to see if flight is possible with Mar’s thin atmosphere. After a few months and a few test drives, Perseverance will drop Ingenuity off in a safe location that is decided by both NASA’s rover and helicopter teams. According to NASA, after Ingenuity is deployed, it will have a 30 sol day, 31 Earth days, test flight window, where it will have to survive against extremely freezing temperatures, as low as negative 130 degrees. If the aircraft survives this and achieves flight, 90% of Ingenuity’s goals will be complete. The helicopter’s goal is to be able to see if lift is able to be achieved in Mar’s air. If it lands correctly and remains operable there can be up to four more test flights to push Ingenuity’s limits and see how far Ingenuity can lift off Mars’s surface.
Currently, Perseverance has given us photos, a video, and an audio recording of the Martian surface. It will be a few months until the rover starts to move and do more of its tasks, but the media it has sent back alone brings scientists one step closer to learning more about Mars. Over the coming months, the rover will explore more Mars land, collect samples, and hopefully complete its job.