On Feb. 18, the next Mars Rover, Perseverance, will have landed near the Jezero Crater on Mars after a more than six-month journey to the red planet. Preceding Perseverance are the Rovers Spirit and Opportunity (almost known as Rock and Roll), which launched in 2003. Another rover, Curiosity, launched in 2012, and then a stationary lander, Insight, launched in 2018. All rovers take up the mission of exploring the viability of life on Mars, specifically the history of water near the surface, other life sustaining elements like oxygen and the seismic activity of the planet. The rovers get their name from NASA’s “Name the Rover” contest where students in kindergarten through 12th grade can submit essays behind the name they propose for the next rover. The name Perseverance was submitted by Alexander Mather with an essay stating that perseverance is the most important quality of the human race, and that “not as a nation but as humans, will not give up. The human race will always persevere into the future.”
Perseverance will use a landing approach affectionately called the “seven minutes of terror.” The descent and landing of the rover will take seven minutes, but information in the form of radio waves will take 14 minutes to transmit from Mars to Earth. Therefore, the process must be completely automated and mission control will not know the outcome until the whole process has already taken place. At the top of the Martian atmosphere, Perseverance will deploy a parachute to begin to slow it down, and a heat shield to protect the vehicle from getting scorched during landing. The Perseverance computer and artificial intelligence system will examine the terrain when it gets within meters of the surface to determine the optimal landing spot. The parachute will be released, and the rest of the landing will be powered by rocket boosters to (hopefully) safely land at the surface.
The Perseverance rover hopes to make many scientific advances toward the goal of humans habituating Mars. It features a drill that will collect core samples of rocks and soils to look for evidence of microbial life in Mars’ history. Perseverance will also be hosting an experiment to see if oxygen can be produced from the Martian atmosphere. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (M.O.X.I.E.) is looking to turn the Martian atmosphere, made of 96 percent carbon dioxide, into oxygen in order to both sustain human life and use liquid oxygen as fuel. The mechanism works very similarly to plants on Earth; the machine breathes in carbon dioxide and breathes out oxygen.
Perseverance is also home to a new kind of smaller rover never before used to explore Mars. Ingenuity, the new, smaller rover, is a helicopter that will demonstrate test flights on Mars. While not directly related to the Perseverance science objectives, Ingenuity’s flight demonstration could be pivotal for future transportation after landing on Mars for both robots and humans. Flying on Mars is more difficult than expected because of the very thin atmosphere. The movie “The Martian” contends that dust storms on Mars would have much force, but in reality, there are so few air particles present on Mars that even when moving fast, they muster very little force as a whole. This has to be taken into account when designing Ingenuity. Engineers had to design a base both lightweight but sturdy, and wings that could generate enough lift to carry this base through the Martian air. This resulted in two propellers with a rotational diameter of four feet rotating 2,400 times-per-minute to be able to create enough lift to carry the only four-pound base.