By SCOTT ELNES
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
On July 30, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched a rover —aptly named by seventh grader from Virginia—Perseverance.
After traveling over 300 million miles, Perseverance will attempt to land on the surface of Mars on Feb. 18.
After a silent series of months traveling through the cold empty darkness of space, the ending will come in a period of time known as the “Seven Minutes of Terror,” when Perseverance will experience some of the most rigorous tests any vehicle can withstand.
The vehicle that the rover has hitched a ride on thus far in will have to slow from 16,000 miles an hour to just 1 mile per hour in around 420 seconds.
Because light going 186,000 miles per second takes 5 to 20 minutes to reach Mars, Perseverance will be incapable of being guided by humans during this seven minutes of terror and will fly completely on its own. For much of the descent, it will be flying blind, as its heat shield that will reach temperatures comparable to heat of the sun will be blocking its ability to find its bearings.
“We have four main objectives with this mission. Three are what we call real science objectives and the fourth objective is preparing for future human exploration, so a lot of that is technology demonstrations of things that would be useful to future exploration,” Ken Williford, the deputy project scientist for the Mars mission, said.
Both NASA and SpaceX have plans to one day send human life to Mars, a lot of this mission will be looking for any life, whatsoever.
“We’re a robotic geologist, so we land on the surface and we use our scientific instruments as sort of the sense organs of the human geologist, and we work to understand the processes that formed the rocks that we see around us, and also what altered them in the time interval between when they were formed, and when we find them today,” Williford said. “The reason all that is important is largely for the next objective, which is astrobiology. As we understand the environments in which those rocks around us formed, we ask the question: could that environment have supported microbial life at one time?”
What makes perseverance so unique compared to previous rovers is that is gives us a chance to not just ask “if” but “where?”
“We then take the next step beyond what the previous rovers have really been focused on and we directly seek the evidence of any ancient life that was in those environments,” Williford said. “So not just could this environment have supported life but was this environment inhabited, and in doing that. we’re looking for what we call potential biosignatures. A biosignature is sometimes called a sign of life.
The first signs of life on Earth showed up about 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, which is about the age of the rocks Perseverance will be sampling on Mars to see if it too was getting in on the action of life making back then.
“And so to enable that on our Rover, we built that we called the sample caching system which is a very complex sort of robot within a robot,” Williford said. “Now we have like almost this little bottling plant. It’s a small robotic arm inside that handles sample tubes which are extraordinarily clean titanium tubes, that are empty, then they get put inside a drill bit to drill out, and on the end of our robotic arm takes that drill bit with a sample tube inside, drills into a rock, and a core of rock goes into that tube.
“It goes back into the sample caching system and the two get sealed and stored on board the Rover, until at some point later in the mission,” Williford said. “We set down collections of those titanium sample tubes which are filled with Mars samples, and then the idea is a future mission would come, land near our tubes, pick them up, put them in a rocket, send them into orbit around Mars and eventually get them back to earth for studying earth based labs.”
Another thing that makes Perseverance unique is that some of its samples could one day be sent back to Earth where our science labs are far more sophisticated and can truly look for signs of life as well as insights into the early formation of our solar system.
As part of a technology demonstration, Perseverance has an actual drone strapped to its belly that will be deployed and hopefully provide the first flight ever taken on another planet by humans.