By Tina Sindwani
Update on 18 February 2021 at 1:11 PM PST: The rover has confirmed successful landing and has just sent back its first photos! Congratulations! Dare Mighty Things.
Watching the Red Planet shine in the evening light is always an enthralling experience. Now, imagine building a robot, a helicopter, several cameras, packaging it all up, and sending it on rockets on a trip to that tiny dot in the sky! That's what the Mars missions are all about! And there's one that's happening right now, which will land the next rover - called Perseverance - and the very first helicopter - called Ingenuity - on Mars THIS week!
I'm doubly excited to see the landing because of two personal experiences with this mission. In 2019, during the Global STEM Alliance Summit, a three-day conference for STEM students and professionals from around the world, I was fortunate enough to meet the Lead Engineer on the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity, Mimi Aung. I got to learn about the details of the mission, including how the engineers had to fight for every half gram of material put on the helicopter and how it had to pass all of its flight tests by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to ensure that it even had a chance to fly on Mars.
I listened as Aung spoke about tests within the vacuum chambers in the lab to simulate Mars's low air density environment. It was an enlightening experience for me, an aspiring engineer, just imagining the unlimited possibilities of my work.
After that first-hand experience, I began to follow the Mars 2020 mission with double interest, consciously examining the ways I could contribute to such an effort in the future too. The truth is, a mission like this is the most awe-inspiring job I could imagine, and I wanted to share my passion with all of you! So while I am definitely going to tune in to the live stream on Thursday this week, I've compiled a comprehensive information guide for all of you to learn about it and access it as well!
You'll find here everything you need to know about the Mars mission, including when and where to watch the livestream, mission specifics, and more! I will be updating this page up to and a few days after the landing to keep you up-to-date on this awe-inspiring mission!
Here is a list of contents, feel free to jump to the section you want to learn about most!
Section 1: Quick Reference
Section 2: The Mission
Section 3: The Components
Section 4: References
Section 5: Additional Resources
Some Quick Reference:
The landing is scheduled to be at 12:55 p.m. PST (3:55 p.m. EST) on 18 February, 2021. NASA will be providing multiple engagement opportunities before and after the landing. A live stream on multiple platforms of the main landing will start at 11:15 a.m. PST / 2:15 p.m. EST / 19:15 UTC, and information on that and all the other opportunities can be found here. At the end of this article, I've also linked a World Clock, so you can tune into the activities at the right time!
What's the timeline of this mission?
Perseverance launched on the Atlas V-541 rocket on 30 July 2020 and will reach Mars on 18 February 2021, landing in an area called the Jezero Crater. Years of pre-launch activities before, and of course, the experiments on Mars after the touchdown add to the length and complexity of this mission.
Why are we sending the rover to Mars?
The purpose of this mission is what it's always been - to learn. Grounded deeply into our human nature is the desire to explore, to uncover the mysteries of planets other than our own, and to find our own significance in this universe! Is there life on Mars? What's the climate like, and how does the geology shift? How can we, one day, live on Mars ourselves?
After decades of exploration, Mars is still an enigmatic environment with an infinite amount left to explore. As we unfold more and more of its mysteries, the lure of Mars as a second home doesn't escape our imaginations. From the imagery captured from previous Mars rovers such as Curiosity, scientists have found tracks of what could only be deemed to be flowing water. Even today, water is present on Mars in the form of polar ice caps. And although the current atmosphere of Mars contains mostly carbon dioxide, making the air unbreathable for us, scientists believe its atmosphere could have been different in the past. Mars could have supported life before and could possible support life in the future!
The Perseverance rover will search for signs of past microbial life, collect samples of rocks and soil for a future Mars mission to pick up, and explore possible habitable environments. This would make this the very first time that we explore samples of rock and soil from another planet!
Tell me more about where it will land and what it will do!
Jezero Crater, seen below, is an area that is believed to have once been a lake/river delta. Therefore, it's a good place to look for ancient biological traces - mostly of microbes - from some 3.5 billion years ago. The Perseverance rover's astrobiological goal includes collecting and analyzing rock samples from the crater to look for signs of microbial life in the rocks.
More specifically, scientists will analyze imagery and sensory information from the rover to match portions of the explored area to areas of similar geography on Earth. For example, scientists have previously found that Jezero Crater contains particles of clay, something that can only form in the presence of water. Scientists compared this to the similar conditions of the Mississippi River delta in the United States, which actually contains traces of its microbiology in its rocks! Therefore, the crater's rocks are deemed to be a great place to look for ancient life.
How will the rover and helicopter deal with the Martian environment?
Perseverance and Ingenuity have been prepared for the extreme weather on Mars, including its dust storms and its on average sub-Antarctic temperatures.
Perseverance, like past rovers, has a weather station to alert it of any unfavorable conditions for operation. The rover consistently sends weather information back to ground for scientists to analyze!
The cameras on Perseverance also have covers that are only removed when the camera is in use, limiting its exposure. The cameras, however, still get dusty! The Mastcam-Z on the rover actually has three holes drilled at the bottom of its frame that drain the dust from its cover and camera frame.
The rover contains layers of insulating paint and other materials that keep the internal devices working, despite the freezing temperatures that would normally severely hinder their function.
Additionally, Perseverance will mostly be operated during the day time on Mars, when the temperatures are at their warmest, to keep it running smoothly!
What's on the rover?
Creating and testing the rover was a complex process! It contains many parts, but here is a description of some shortlisted ones:
A camera with stereoscopic (being able to stitch together multiple photographs of an object to add depth), panoramic, and zooming capabilities. This camera was actually designed and partially built at my university (shoutout to ASU!), which adds to the excitement of its use on Mars!
This is a weather sensor, capable of measuring temperature, wind speeds/direction, humidity, pressure, and dust particles in the air.
This tool actually takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it to oxygen. This could help inform future missions on how to make use of the materials in the atmosphere to make life possible on Mars...and improve conditions on Earth.
A spectrometer (a device that can separate components of a spectrum, like the light spectrum) with a high-resolution camera used to analyze Martian soil/rocks and its chemicals. PIXL uses X-ray for its functions.
We seem so occupied with the soil and rocks...ever wonder what the world beneath the surface looks like? This is a radar that can provide a look at the geology under the Martian surface with accuracy on the centimeter scale!
Also a spectrometer to provide a look at the Martian surface's chemical compounds. In addition, it will look for organic compounds (carbon chains, since they are the building blocks of life). According to NASA, "SHERLOC is the first UV Raman spectrometer to fly to the surface of Mars"!
Another instrument to provide imaging and analysis for the Martian rock/soil composition. This camera can do something really interesting: it can detect the presence of organic compounds in rocks from some distance away!
What is the purpose of Ingenuity? Can a helicopter actually fly on Mars?
NASA calls Ingenuity a "technology demonstration to test the first powered flight on Mars." It would actually be the first powered flight ever on a planet other than Earth if it succeeds! That said, we don't know whether it will be able to properly fly on Mars. We are testing it in the hopes of succeeding and opening a new option of exploration on Mars - a bird's eye view. That could bring immense value when exploring the more rugged areas of Mars where a rover would not be able to go and being able to see the soil/geology and patterns within them in a new light.
What are some additional engagement opportunities for me?
There are endless opportunities to engage with the Mars2020 mission and the space/NASA community in general!
For example, check out these toolkits offered by NASA to learn more about the mission (and even explore a 3D model of Perseverance!).
Social media and the website/news page/live video feeds are additional ways to get involved with updates from NASA and other space agencies from throughout the world, like ISRO and ESA!
Last, but most exciting! Did you know that your name can fly to Mars? NASA provides an opportunity for anyone to enter their name to be taken on the next Mars mission! You name will be etched onto a microchip that will fly to Mars. NASA has done this in the past, and while it's not possible to send your name with Perseverance anymore, you can enter you name now for the next Mars mission! You can check it out here.
How can I learn more?
Take a look at the references at the end of this article! You can also visit mars.nasa.gov for more information!
That's all! But there's still a lot more to learn! I hope you take advantage of all the resources and engagement opportunities in the article! May opportunity and our curiosity, ingenuity, and of course, perseverance continue to drive us to exploration (pun totally intended)!! Continue checking back as I continue to update this page! Thank you, and keep exploring!