Written by Shreyansh Saurabh and Akshita Gupta
‘Touchdown Confirmed’. If you had tuned into any news channel (or even YouTube) in the past few days, I’m pretty sure that this headline would’ve caught your attention. The magnitude of these two words is so massive that it made almost the entire world jump with joy at 20:55 GMT on 18 February 2021 when the Perseverance rover finally set foot on the Jezero crater of the Martian surface. How significant was this event you ask? Well, let us walk you through it.
The year 2020 was not an amicable one. The entire world was dealt a heavy blow due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, followed by the economic meltdown. Numerous mega-events like the Tokyo Olympics and the UEFA Euro 2020 were rescheduled, which made things even worse. Yet, the one event that went as planned was the Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission. Note that any space mission requires a convoluted set of commands and precise actions to make it a success and even more so for an escapade on another planet’s surface. Thus, the Perseverance 2020 Mission was timed for a launch between 30 July 2020 and 15 August 2020, when the Earth and Mars would be in a relative position that was the most apt for landing, with the least number of obstacles and maximum fuel efficiency. So, stocked with seminal technology, the Mars 2020 mission took flight on 30 July 2020 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, and after a 203-day journey traversing 293 million miles, the confirmation of successful touchdown was affirmed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
Well, in case you’re wondering, this mission isn’t the ‘first’ of its kind. The first aircraft sent to Mars was over half a century ago, way back in 1960. It’s fascinating to reflect back on the progress that has been made since. Our objectives have changed as we sought to delve deeper into the exploration of Mars and with each new mission, mankind has pushed its boundaries considerably. The Curiosity 2012 mission trailed along the same lines as Perseverance 2020, but the latter has a considerable edge over the former in terms of almost a decade worth of technological advancement and a sturdier build to better resist the harsh Martian conditions, to name a few. The ground navigation system of the Perseverance rover has been significantly upgraded compared to the Curiosity rover. It is equipped with an optical sensor feeding data to a Machine Learning vision algorithm, allowing it to find its own path through the rough terrain, unlike the Curiosity rover that was highly dependent on its earth controllers to determine the most apt route and avoid running into unnecessary hurdles. Physically, the Perseverance rover weighs just over a ton more than its predecessor, carrying loads of fascinating and novel technologies to help mankind de-mystify the Red Planet.
Now, let’s get a grasp on what humankind intends to accomplish via the Perseverance Mission. One of the primary objectives is to act as the first phase in the Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign, planned jointly by NASA and ESA. The rover’s role is to gather and seal off scientifically intriguing rock samples and place them in assigned locations on the surface for the fetch rover to collect.
The second phase then involves the transfer of these samples to a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which will launch into orbit and rendezvous with a spacecraft designated to bring the samples back to Earth. Scientists on Earth have access to a much more diverse set of scientific instruments. Thus, MSR offers an opportunity for us to make significant progress in our understanding of Mars' potential habitability and its geology.
There is a whole new set of sensors on-board, each capable of using different sets of electromagnetic radiation to investigate the ground below them. The SHERLOC instrument (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) on the robotic head will look for signs of bio-signatures, and be able to detect chemicals that could indicate the presence of past life on the Red Planet. The rover is also equipped with an X-ray imager called PIXL that will be able to determine the texture of the surface below it, looking for even minute variations in geology that will indicate that microbial life has altered its environment. Additionally, the rover is taking samples of astronaut spacesuit materials that will be used as calibration targets for the SHERLOC instrument and will be pivotal in designing spacesuits to withstand Mars’ atmosphere.
The Perseverance rover isn’t patrolling alone. Attached to the belly of the rover is a small-but-mighty payload weighing just 1.8 kilograms, named ‘Ingenuity’. It is a robotic rotorcraft, a technology experiment, which would attempt the first aircraft controlled flight on another planet. Ingenuity was developed under a project which aims to test the possibilities of flight in the thin and adverse Martian atmosphere and to provide mapping and guidance for the driving routes of future expeditions. Unlike Perseverance, this doesn’t carry many scientific instruments; its payload includes a high-resolution downward-facing camera for navigation and a communication system designed to relay data to the rover at 250 kbit/s with a range of approximately 1000 metres.
The rotorcraft is still nestled sideways under the Perseverance rover and will be gently dropped when the rover finds a safe place for it. Currently, this “Mars Helicopter” relies on the rover’s power supply, but once it is successfully deployed on Mars' surface, the batteries would solely depend on its own solar panels for recharging. It would then have a 31-day experimental flight test window which would consist of test flights (with a maximum duration of 90 seconds) and if the rotorcraft survives these days on the Red Planet, the NASA team would then proceed with the primary science objectives. Due to extensive interplanetary distances, the engineering team on Earth will not be able to fully supervise the rotorcraft’s movements, so it would analyze sensor data and images of the terrain on its own and decide the navigation path. Using an air-based craft has many potential benefits. Not only can the helicopter cover far more ground compared to the rover, but it also provides a unique perspective of the Martian surface from a considerable distance above the ground.
But, let’s be honest here. The mission isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds in theory and, in fact, is based on a lot of contingencies. The MSR alone is way more complex than one would expect. Sample collection relies on an ornate and multi-faceted robotic system that performs quite a few steps in just sealing away the samples. Each of these steps requires utmost precision. Furthermore, the rover has a finite sample capacity and the handling of these samples will determine the success of the entire campaign.
Even if ‘Percy’ executes all of the steps impeccably, there’s a whole new level of contingencies standing in the way of getting those samples back to Earth. This is going to take a great deal of time and money to have a chance at succeeding. The MOXIE instrument (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) tagging along will try to convert Mars’ carbon dioxide-dominated atmosphere into oxygen to determine whether it could be used as a fuel. The resource utilization of the planet will arguably play the most important role in getting the samples back via the MAV and will prepare mankind for future crew-based missions. The successful utilization could decrease the weight of the payloads considerably for the next missions and could open doors to a whole new realm of planetary expeditions.
If you look at the bigger picture, the Perseverance mission is a major step in determining the possibility of a habitable environment on Mars. Sure, there are a number of hurdles out there but the potential pay-off of this mission is huge. The samples brought back by the Apollo mission are still being studied by scientists, decades later, and there’s no reason to believe that it would be any different for these Martian samples. So, don’t presume it to be just another mission into space. Mars 2020 very well has the potential to trigger the onset of a new era in space exploration, how we study the Red planet in the coming future, and also for us humans to venture past our own planet and set a foothold on distant lands.
Image courtesy: NASA