NASA has announced that its newest Mars rover, Perseverance, is scheduled to land on Mars today. Perseverance brings a host of new technologies to the surface of Mars to search for evidence of microbial life.
Rendering of the Perseverance rover, which is roughly the size of an SUV. Image used courtesy of NASA
Using a suite of cameras, X-rays, laser imaging, and new landing equipment, the rover is set to accomplish the task of exploring Jezero Crater, a lake site as of 3.5 billion years ago, for biosignatures.
“The Most Precise Landing Yet”
Among the many technological feats achieved with Perseverance, NASA is especially excited about what it is calling, the “most precise landing yet.” In order to achieve a precise landing while navigating challenging terrain, NASA is introducing new landing techniques called Range Trigger Technology and Terrain-Relative Navigation.
Compared to previous rover landings, which released the parachute as early as possible, Range Trigger Technology deploys the rover’s parachute based on Perseverance’s location relative to the target—early if an overshoot was predicted, later for an undershoot.
The Perseverance landing will lean on AI and computer vision to achieve “the most precise landing yet.” Image used courtesy of NASA
After deploying the parachute using Range Trigger Technology, the rover then relies on Terrain-Relative Navigation. This application leverages artificial intelligence and computer vision to make decisions about navigating the terrain beneath it.
While descending, the rover will create a map of its landing site, using methods similar to LiDAR technology. Then, as the rover approaches the surface, it takes pictures of the surface and compares what it is seeing to the map. The rover will then search another on-board map of safe landing zones, allowing it to redirect and land in the safest area possible.
Searching for Biosignatures
Once the rover successfully lands, it will begin its search for biosignatures with a sensor suite, including Mastcam-Z (located at the top of the mast as the name suggests), which includes high-precision zoom technology. A second sensor on the mast, the SuperCam, can shoot a laser at a subject of interest and create a small plasma cloud that scientists can later analyze to identify the subject’s chemical composition.
Two Mastcam-Z sensors are attached to the mast. Image used courtesy of NASA
At the end of the rover’s arms are two instruments: the PIXL and SHERLOC. First, the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) uses X-ray beams to determine chemical signs of past life. The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) then shoots a laser at the target to assess the concentration of organic minerals and molecules that may have existed in the formerly aquatic environment.
By combining their findings, the PIXL and SHERLOC can create a precise map of the minerals, molecules, and elements found on Mars.
Tools for Weathering Mars
Beyond the new landing and chemical identification technologies, the Perseverance mission will introduce new on-board devices that will prepare the rover for the harsh environments of Mars.
One technology of interest is called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), an instrument that will convert CO2 in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. Along with this, the rover is equipped with subsurface radars, laser micro-imagers, ultraviolet spectrometers, and many cameras.
MOXIE being lowered into the rover. Image used courtesy of NASA
According to NASA’s fact sheet, by measuring the heat and pressure that the rover experiences, engineers will gain insight into the Martian atmosphere. Specifically, the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) can accomplish this task with sensors that measure the wind speed and direction, atmospheric pressure, temperature, dust size, and humidity. The rover will also include an “Advanced Aeroshell Sensor package,” which contains a suite of sensors, including temperature sensors, pressure sensors, and a weather station.
Finally, the Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) is a ground-penetrating radar that creates a detailed, centimeter-scale image of the geologic structures below the surface of Mars.
A Search for Ancient Life
One inherent challenge of Perseverance is bringing samples home to earth for additional study. “The instrumentation required to definitively prove microbial life once existed on Mars is too large and complex to bring to Mars,” explains JPL’s Bobby Braun, the program manager of the Mars Sample Return mission.
To address this limitation, NASA is partnering with the European Space Agency on follow-up missions to collect any samples of interest and bring them back to earth for analysis.
This mission illustrates how space exploration has not only provided humanity with its most impressive accomplishments (both sending a man to the moon and sending rovers to explore distant planets) but also pushed terrestrial technology to new heights. Many fields, from computing to wireless communications to imaging, only exist as we know them today because of technological advances made as a result of space exploration efforts.
NASA will be providing live updates on the Perseverance mission today on its website and social media accounts.