Pioneering with Perseverance: More Technology Firsts
From launching the largest, heaviest, most sophisticated vehicle we have ever sent to Mars, to its elegant landing at Jezero Crater – a treacherous yet promising location for finding signs of ancient life – the journey of our Perseverance rover has already been and continues to be a bold one.
But let’s not forget, building new tools and instruments or designing ways to study other worlds is not easy. Before engineers even dreamt of sending their hardware for a spin on Mars, they spent years doing all they could to validate tech on Earth – modeling in labs, flying experiments on suborbital rockets or high-altitude balloons, or testing in various facilities to simulate the harsh conditions of space.
We know that technology demonstrations – that test a new capability in space – can be risky, but trying new things is how we forge ahead, learn for future missions, and reach new heights in space.
Perseverance has already accomplished some amazing “firsts” but there are more to come. Here are four more trailblazing technologies on the Mars 2020 mission.
1. First Powered Flight on Another World
This week, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft originally stowed beneath the rover, will make the first-ever attempt at powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.
In the last few weeks, Ingenuity safely deployed from Perseverance, charged up its solar panel, survived its first bone-chilling Martian night and firmly planted four legs on the ground. Once the team on Earth confirms that the rover drove about 16 feet (about 5 meters) away, and that both helicopter and rover are communicating via their onboard radios, preflight checks will begin, and Ingenuity will be on its way skyward.
Perseverance will receive and relay the final flight instructions from mission controllers at our Jet Propulsion Laboratory to Ingenuity. Ingenuity will run its rotors to 2,537 rpm and, if all final self-checks look good, lift off. After climbing at a rate of about 3 feet per second (1 meter per second), the helicopter will hover at 10 feet (3 meters) above the surface for up to 30 seconds. Then, the Mars Helicopter will descend and touch back down on the Martian surface. With a smooth landing and continued operability, up to four more flights could be attempted, each one building on the success of the last.
Ingenuity could pave the way for other advanced robotic flying vehicles. Possible uses of next-generation rotorcraft on Mars include:
A unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters, rovers or landers
High-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans
Access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach
Could even carry light but vital payloads from one site to another
Here’s how to follow along as this flight makes history.
2. First Production of Oxygen from Martian Atmosphere
The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, better known as MOXIE, is preparing us for human exploration of Mars by demonstrating a way to extract oxygen directly from the Martian atmosphere. That could mean access to air for breathing, but also the ability to produce vast quantities of rocket fuel to return astronauts to Earth.
Located inside the body of Perseverance, the car battery-sized instrument works like a miniature electronic tree on the rover, inhaling carbon dioxide, separating the molecule, and exhaling carbon monoxide and oxygen.
MOXIE is the first demonstration of its kind on another planet – the first test of an in-situ resource utilization technology, meaning it generates a usable product from local materials. The farther humans go into deep space, the more important this will be, due to the limited immediate access to supplies.
MOXIE will give a go at its first operations soon, a huge first step in proving it’s feasible to make oxygen, in situ, on Mars. Future, larger versions of MOXIE (something about the size of a washing machine) could produce oxygen 200 times faster by operating continuously.
3. First Weather Reporter at Jezero Crater
The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) system makes weather measurements including wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity, and also measures the amount and size of dust particles in the Martian atmosphere.
Using MEDA data, engineers on Earth recently pieced together the first weather report from Jezero Crater. Measurements from MEDA sensors are even helping to determine the optimal time for Ingenuity’s first flight.
The weather instrument aboard the Curiosity rover – currently located a good 2,300 miles away from Perseverance on Mars – provides similar daily weather and atmospheric data. But MEDA can record the temperature at three atmospheric heights in addition to the surface temperature. It also records the radiation budget near the surface, which will help prepare for future human exploration missions on Mars.
MEDA’s weather reports, coupled with data gathered by Curiosity and NASA’s Insight lander, will enable a deeper understanding of Martian weather patterns, events, and atmospheric turbulence that could influence planning for future endeavors like the landing or launch of the proposed Mars Sample Return mission.
4. First Radar Tool to Probe Under the Martian Surface
On Earth, scientists use radar to look for things under the ground. They use it to study Mars-like glacial regions in the Arctic and Antarctic. Ground-penetrating radar helps us locate land mines; spot underground cables, wires, and pipes; or reveal ancient human artifacts and even buried treasure! On Mars, the "buried treasure" may be ice, which helps scientists understand the possibilities for Martian life and also identifies natural resources for future human explorers.
Perseverance's Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) uses radar waves to probe the ground and reveal the unexplored world that lies beneath the Martian surface.
It’s the first ground-penetrating radar on the surface of Mars. RIMFAX will provide a highly detailed view of subsurface structures down to at least 30 feet (10 meters). With those measurements, the instrument will reveal hidden layers of geology and help find clues to past environments on Mars, especially those with conditions necessary for supporting life.
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