Late evening Sydney time, July 30. An Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, on Florida’s south eastern tip. At 191 feet in height, it’s barely half as tall as the mighty Saturn Vs that lifted off from the same area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It’s also just a few feet taller overall than the full space shuttle assembly.What makes this launch important is the cargo. Perseverance, a new Mars rover and named by Alex Mather, a now 13yo schoolboy from Virginia after NASA had a naming contest, is the reason for the launch and is expected to land on Mars in February, 2021. It’s the newest and better version of the two valiant rovers already on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity. Both landed on Mars in January of 2004, and far exceeded their design specifications.
NASA learned many things from the efforts of the pair, and this includes for Perseverance a better power source, more cameras, and for the mission, a dedicated suite of investigative tools. the aim? To look for signs of any lifeforms, existing or previous, in the landing site on Mars. Jezero Crater is the chosen point, and for the possibility of life due to the postulation water once flowed there. A fan-shaped delta indicates water flow and the clay material is why NASA has chosen that site, with the thinking the clay may have signs of microbial life.
Perseverance itself is a bit of a beast. At roughly the same size as a micro-car, the rover is bristling with tools that will dig, drill, photograph, and listen for the first time ever, to Mars. A pair of microphones have been fitted to Perseverance, along with Mastcam-Z, a stereo-imaging zoomable panoramic camera system. Rimfax (Radar imaging for Mars sub-surface experiment) is a sub-surface (up to 10 metres) radar scanner that along with Perseverance’s autonomous driving programming, will measure the ground under the six driven wheels and hopefully avoid the sandtrap that stopped Spirit in her tracks. A boom arm of 2.1 metres in length and hinged in five places will hold the mechanisms to drill into the surface. In a first, samples will be stored and eventually launched from the Mars surface and rendezvous with a craft and return the samples to Earth. This is expected to be accomplished in a decade’s time.
Sherloc (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) and Watson are the pair of cameras up front, and they’ll work together to provide spectrometry in the ultra-violet spectrum. Supercam is a laser powered micro-imagining device, and perseverance can keep an eye on the weather thanks to an inbuilt weather station called Meda (Mars environmental dynamics analyser) which will measure temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity, radiation, and dust particle size and shape. And in an exciting experiment, Moxie (Mars oxygen ISRU experiment) will use the thin Martian atmosphere as a source to see if oxygen can be produced.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Perseverance design is how NASA has fitted Ingenuity. This is a drone ‘copter, and will fly above Perseverance to map out a way forward, plus it will be the first aircraft to fly upon a world other than our own Earth. The blades are a two by two configuration, and are constructed of a carbon-fibre foam core mix. The landing legs are carbon-fibre, and the blades circulate under a solar panel that will both drive the blades and provide power to the senors & cameras underneath.Perseverance herself is a re-evolution of Spirit and Opportunity. The wheels have been increased from 50cm to 52cm for a greater rolling diameter. The design and the construction of the wheels has changed to allow for more durability with aluminuim and titanium being employed. Extra equipment sees Perseverance up to 1,050kg in mass over a predecessor, Curiosity. She weighed in at 899kg.
Power comes from a plutonium dioxide pack weighing 4.8kg and producing 110 watts. A pair of lithium-ion batteries will supplement this on demand. Dubbed the MMRTG, the multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator replaces the solar panels that are susceptible to dust coverings and subsequent power loss. It’s not cheap to build, at over US$109 million…The expected lifespan is 14 years.Perseverance is due to land on Barsoom, a name given to Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs in one of his early 1900s novels, on February 18, 2021. The landing process is fully autonomous and NASA describes it as “seven minutes of hell” as the lander goes from 21,000kmh to virtually zero to land, safely, on Mars.