One of NASA’s advanced rovers was successfully launched in the summer of international Mars missions. This occurred after the launches from other countries, including the launch of the Tianwen-1 Mars spacecraft from China and the Hope Mars mission from the United Arab Emirates. NASA embarked on the 309 million mile journey (which is around 497 million kilometers) from the Earth to Mars as its Mars 2020 Perseverance mission was launched. The Perseverance rover was attached to the top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket and Centaur upper stage. This, along with the Ingenuity helicopter, took off on Thursday morning (that is, 30th July). But there’s more to the journey.
Although NASA has invested in several Mars missions before, this is probably its most ambitious one. It was announced in 2012 and the purpose of the mission was to study the planet at a deeper level than what has been done so far. The rover would mainly be collecting evidence that would be studied in laboratories on Earth to determine if Mars harbored microbial life in the past.
A similar was launched by NASA in the past. In 2012, the Curiosity rover landed on Mars to discover the mineral life on the planet. When the mineral samples that the rover brought were analyzed, scientists discovered that there may have been microbial life on the planet. It has since been eight years and NASA is now launching this new mission to find further evidence to support these claims.
One of the reasons why a new mission is being launched after so long is because the technology required for it is incredibly complex. The agency had to invest a lot of time- and money- into research and development as this technology has never been used before. As per NASA, the Perseverance rover is fitted with seven “state-of-the-art tools for acquiring information about Martian geology, atmosphere, environmental conditions, and potential signs of life (biosignatures).” It will be the first-ever rover to gather and store samples from the surface of Mars so that they can be later retrieved and brought back to Earth by astronauts on a joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Another reason why the rover is a first of its kind is that it is equipped with high-definition cameras with top-notch imaging features. Not only this, but it will also have HD microphones to capture the sounds of Mars- another thing that has never been done before. The sounds that will be captured include entry, descent, landing, and driving on the terrain.
The rover will also carry two technological demonstration missions (TDMs) with it called MOXIE and Ingenuity. MOXIE stands for Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment which is designed to test the technology that can convert carbon dioxide to oxygen in Mars’s atmosphere. This is important as it would allow scientists to determine whether or not people can be sent to Mars. Ingenuity is a rotorcraft or helicopter that is capable of flying on Mars. It will also provide scientists with crucial information on the gravitational forces on Mars, which will in turn allow them to design a rovercraft that is ideal for the planet’s conditions. This testing serves as an important purpose and is crucial to achieving the goal of Mars colonization as these rovercrafts can serve as delivery systems.
This is a mission that has been in the works for a long time and NASA was planning on completing it within a particular time frame. However, the COVID-19 pandemic was a major setback that pushed deadlines. One significant challenge that NASA faced was assembling integrations during the final phases of the mission’s development, as a large majority of NASA and JPL staff were working from home. Omas Baez, the senior launch director, said “I never would have thought that a launch director would be working from home and I’ve done that for the last five months,” and that “It’s humbling to see how our whole team from the range, to our partners at JPL, to our partners at ULA, to our folks at headquarters – how we all had to adjust to work in this environment, to work electronically.” Despite the setbacks imposed by the pandemic, they were still able to launch the rover by the target date.
The original launch date was July 18, which is at the very start of the interplanetary liftoff window that generally lasts a month. Another challenge, apart from the lockdown resulting from the pandemic, was regarding a crane at the Vertical Integration Facility. The ULA had to spend a few days dealing with this, which pushed the launch date to July 22. This was further delayed to July 30, as explained in a press release from NASA, “due to launch vehicle processing delays in preparation for spacecraft mate operations.”
The Atlas V (541 configuration) consists of a common core booster and four rocket motors that are carrying a payload that is 197 feet tall. The rocket provided a thrust of 2 million pounds, which rocketed the spacecraft away from Florida and towards the Atlantic Ocean. The separation between the two stages of the rocket happened after around 90 seconds of flight, as the rocket motors were exhausted. This coat phase lasted around 30 minutes, after which the Centaur completed another nominal burn lasting around 8 minutes. It delivered the payload to a heliocentric, rather than Earth-bound, orbit.
After the separation, the Perseverance rover was propelled towards Mars and the Centaur (in the upper-stage) performed a maneuver known as the blowdown. This is done to prevent it from entering Mars, providing planetary protection. Approximately 20 minutes after this procedure, Perseverance started sending signals to Earth via its transmitter. These signals were received by the transmitters at NASA’s Deep Space Network, which has arrays of giant antennas.
This interplanetary journey and exploration of the red planet with the Perseverance rover will continue for years to come as NASA is planning on another launch on February 18, 2021.