Amazing Mars Mission Nearing Red Planet

When NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attempts its first test flight on the Red Planet, the agency's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will be close by, as seen in this artist's concept.

When NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attempts its first test flight on the Red Planet, the agency's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will be close by, as seen in this artist's concept. JPL-Caltech/NASA

The Mars Perseverance Rover is now speeding toward Mars at a blazing 71,413 miles per hour.

A couple years ago I wrote about NASA’s ambitious plans for a future Mars mission that involved everything from flying helicopters around on the red planet to setting up a listening post so we could all tune into the native vibes up there. The past couple years down here on Earth have been challenging to say the least, and I kind of lost track of this project despite my initial enthusiasm. Thankfully, NASA plowed ahead with it, and the Mars Perseverance Rover is now speeding toward Mars at a blazing 71,413 miles per hour.

Successfully launched on July 30 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Mars Perseverance Rover and the entire Mars 2020 mission is even more ambitious than initially planned. The goals for the mission include looking for signs that microbial bacteria is living on Mars today, scanning for evidence that life may have once existed there and also testing a new technology designed to extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is 96% carbon dioxide. It will also monitor the climate and seasons on Mars, all of which could be helpful for future human explorers, especially the oxygen-extracting part. 

NASA also loaded five pieces of material onto Perseverance: polycarbonate, Vectran, Ortho-fabric, Teflon and coated Teflon. If they hold up on Mars, those materials will make up the bulk of the spacesuits that human astronauts will wear on future missions into space. Seeing how those materials perform could also benefit the Artemis project, which aims to send humans back to the moon in 2024 as a stepping stone toward eventual Mars missions.

The Mars 2020 project and the data that it generates will be highly interactive, even more so than previous missions. There is already a real-time online tool where the progress of the Rover Spacecraft can be tracked as it sails toward its ultimate destination. In addition to just the Mars 2020 mission, you can also track other notable objects around the solar system, like satellites and famous comets.

NASA created a new video to explain the mission and the technology that will be used by the Perseverance Rover. Like most everything else in government IT these days, one emphasis of the design of the new rover was on keeping costs low. For Perseverance, that meant building the rover onto the frame of the previously researched and engineered Curiosity chassis, which has already proven to be a rugged and reliable platform capable of surviving for months or even years on Mars. Improvements and new instruments were simply added to the already proven frame.

For one, Perseverance will have upgraded tires to help it better navigate the terrain that previous missions discovered on Mars. It will also be the first rover equipped with a drill that will let it core samples and store them on Mars. The goal would be to one day send a mission to retrieve the collected samples, much like NASA is doing with the OSIRIS-REx mission on the Bennu asteroid.

In terms of finally being able to hear what is happening on Mars, Perseverance is equipped with two microphones. The first is a simple commercial-off-the-shelf model that anyone can buy. It will be activated during landing so that we can hear what it sounds like during the seven minutes when the spacecraft is deploying its famous sky crane and hopefully making a successful landing. The commercial microphone is not expected to survive the landing, but you never know. If it does, NASA plans to have it record sounds once it makes planetfall.

A second, high-powered microphone is part of the special SuperCam which will be used to fire lasers at rocks to measure their composition. When the rocks vaporize, they will make a popping sound which the microphone will detect. Apparently, the scientists can analyze those recordings to determine more about the makeup of the samples. But that microphone can be active for up to three and half minutes at a time, so it’s hopeful that we will be able to hear what Mars really sounds like.

We kind of heard what Mars sounds like once before, because a seismometer and air pressure sensor on the NASA Insight lander captured vibrations from Martian winds traveling at about 10 to 15 miles per hour back in 2018. However, these were computer generated based on the data, not real recordings. I have little doubt that they are accurate, but I’d like to hear the real thing, and Perseverance gives us the first chance to really do that.

And then there is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which is currently strapped to the belly of the Perseverance Rover. Every previous mission to Mars has been restricted to having its rovers just crawling along the ground at slow speeds. We’ve had good success with the longevity of the rovers over the years, and they have traveled many more miles than expected. But still, inching along the ground is not a good method of long-distance travel, especially when the lifespan of your vehicle is limited. The helicopter will enable scientists to collect data from more distant locations before flying the helicopter back to the rover to share its findings.

One of the reasons that we have never tried this before is because the thin atmosphere on Mars is not conducive to flight. The project manager for the Mars helicopter explained why a few years ago while the helicopter was undergoing flight tests. 

“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up,” said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.”

On Mars, the helicopter will mostly make short flights to demonstrate the technology. NASA intends to have the chopper cruise for up to 90 seconds at a time if everything goes according to plan. So far, the helicopter is doing well and recently charged up its batteries while traveling to Mars with Perseverance.

There are a lot of very cool things happening with spaceflight. So mark your calendars for Feb. 18, 2021 when Perseverance is expected to land on Mars. Then we should all get a better look, and a first listen, to the mysterious red planet.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

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