FLORIDA – Was there once life on Mars? Our Perseverance rover aims to find it out! On Thursday, July 30, NASA plans to launch a unmanned rover that will land on an ancient waterbed that should have sustained life on Mars years ago.
Robot explorers are helping pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. NASA’s newest Mars rover, Perseverance, is equipped with technology to teach us more about the environment and demonstrate what’s needed to support future crewed missions.
“Perseverance paves the way for new science and technological discoveries,” said Jim Reuter, the associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). “The knowledge and capabilities we gain from this mission will help prepare us for human missions on Mars as early as the 2030s. Technology will drive that exploration.”
Capabilities needed by future pioneers will get their first test on the Red Planet in 2021. Hardware to ensure a precise landing, a mobile weather station, and a brand-new method of producing oxygen from carbon dioxide are packed with all of the science gear.
NASA is preparing to send the first woman and next man to the Moon, part of a larger strategy to send the first astronauts to the surface of Mars. But before they get there, they’ll be faced with a critical question: What should they wear on Mars, where the thin atmosphere allows more radiation from the Sun and cosmic rays to reach the ground? Part of Perseverance is to find out those questions.
While the rover explores Jezero Crater, collecting rock and soil samples for future return to Earth, five small pieces of spacesuit material will be studied by an instrument aboard Perseverance called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals). The materials, including a piece of helmet visor, are embedded alongside a fragment of a Martian meteorite in SHERLOC’s calibration target. That’s what scientists use to make sure an instrument’s settings are correct, comparing readings on Mars to base-level readings they got on Earth.
The aeroshell designed to protect Perseverance during entry into the Martian atmosphere includes a heat shield and a cone-shaped back shell. The former must withstand temperatures of more than 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,480 degrees Celsius).
The Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI) on the aeroshell around the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in 2012 confirmed its heat shield worked effectively. It also revealed that the actual entry environments and the computer model predictions differed slightly. Engineers developed a second version of the technology, called the Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrumentation 2 (MEDLI2) to observe a broader range of entry environment conditions, such as changes in temperature, the wind’s impact on the vehicle trajectory, and heating on the backshell.
The technology’s 28 sensors are positioned across the heat shield and backshell of the Mars 2020 entry vehicle. During the seven minutes of atmospheric entry – when the spacecraft slows from 12,500 miles per hour to just under 2 (from about 20,100 kilometers per hour to 3.2) – the sensors will continuously record heat and pressure across the entry vehicle. These will be NASA’s first-ever measurements of the heat experienced by the backshell of an entry vehicle.
“We are interested in how well the entire vehicle actually operates as it’s going through that crucial phase of incredibly high heating and high-pressure loads,” said Todd White, principal investigator for MEDLI2 based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “We tend to think our predictive models for supersonic flight are pretty good at Mars, but we don’t necessarily have the proof for that.”
New sensors developed by the MEDLI2 team will enable a better understanding of various aspects of the entry environment. Not only will this technology help future spacecraft protect cargo and astronauts, it’s essential for optimizing precision guidance systems. Autonomous landings in the most scientifically valuable areas are tricky, because their geological diversity tends to make them hazardous landing locations.