Following its ancestors’ legacy on Mars, the Perseverance rover will land on February 18, 2021. Perseverance is the largest and the most complex rover built by NASA to date.
The definition of Perseverance is ‘persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.‘ When the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a stand-still in the second quarter of 2020, NASA engineers and scientists had to work from home to catch up with the rover’s scheduled-launch in the narrow window of July last year. Every 1.5 years, Earth and Mars are in such a configuration that reduces the travel time from nine months to seven months. That’s why two countries, the UAE and China, also launched their respective missions to Mars. After several difficulties and challenges, Perseverance was launched as per the schedule.
Seven months later, the rover, enclosed in a capsule, has almost reached the Red Planet. It’s the most technologically advanced rover that humans have sent on the neighboring planet. The Mars 2020 Mission will use five new technologies to help future missions on Mars, both crewed and uncrewed. Two of these are technology demonstrations. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand these technologies. I have given an overview that everyone can understand.
MEDLI2 is the abbreviation of Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrumentation 2. As explained in the article ‘seven minutes of terror,’ the spacecraft takes seven minutes to land on Mars after it enters its atmosphere. These seven minutes are the most challenging part of the mission. Since Mars is about 14 light minutes away, it takes 14 minutes for the signals to reach Mars. Hence, we cannot control the rover’s landing in real-time from the control room. The entire system is computerized.
MEDLI2 has electronic devices that will be active during the EDL. The spacecraft will enter Mars’ atmosphere traveling at about 12,500 miles per hour. MEDLI2 will collect data during the last seven minutes of flight, leading up to when the rover lands on the surface of Mars. Similar technology was first used during the landing of the Curiosity rover in 2012. The 2012 landing data raised several important questions that will be answered in the 2021 EDL of Perseverance. Since the EDL is the most crucial part of the mission, there is no margin of error, and every piece of data is significant. Engineers will build upon this data that will ultimately help in more complex crewed Mars missions.
TRN is the short form of Terrain Relative Navigation, and it is one of the coolest technologies onboard the rover. To ensure a bright future for the rover, it must land in a safe place. During the Apollo moon landings, astronauts sighted landmarks for landing and looked out the window during the final descent to avoid craters and boulder fields and land safely.
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But unlike the Apollo missions, we do not have astronauts who can peep out the window and guide the rover to land on a safe spot. But we do have Terrain Relative Navigation or the TRN. In non-technical terms, TRN will take pictures of the landing zone, compare them with the maps prepared from previous orbital missions, and divert the spacecraft if necessary.
MEDA stands for the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer. Mars is a dusty world. Dust dominates Mars’ weather the way that water dominates Earth’s weather. The dust storms on Mars can sometimes cover the entire planet. In 2018, we lost communication with the Opportunity rover, thanks to a raging dust storm. Nicknamed Oppy, the rover served for about 14 years and was one of the best-performing rovers on Mars.
MEDA is a suite of environmental sensors designed to record dust optical properties and six atmospheric parameters: wind speed/direction, pressure, relative humidity, air temperature, ground temperature, and radiation in discrete bands of the UV, visible, and IR ranges of the spectrum. MEDE sensors are located on the rover’s mast “neck” and on the deck, front, and interior of the rover’s body. The 12-pound instrument is expected to return 11 megabytes of data to help us explore weather conditions on Mars.
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It is a crucial part of the mission as it will help future astronauts know what weather conditions they’ll face on Mars. Their safety depends on accurate weather predictions. There’s an interesting story behind the name MEDA. This simple abbreviation spells two Spanish words that can be roughly translated as “give me,” as in “MEDA! Give me the weather, dust, and radiation report on Mars!”
“MEDA will help prepare for human exploration by providing daily weather reports and information on the radiation and wind patterns on Mars.“Jose A. Rodriguez Manfredi, Principal Investigator
This fancy abbreviation stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. When we talk about human-crewed Mars missions, we should plan for their safe return to Earth. Otherwise, it would be a suicide mission. For their safe return, we need a rocket. For the rocket to take off from the Martian surface, we need oxygen. Of course, we also need oxygen for our astronauts, but the amount of oxygen required as a fuel for rockets is far more than what they need for breathing. Taking such a large amount of oxygen from Earth would be an unrealistic idea. So we need to develop a technology for creating oxygen from the atmosphere of Mars, and MOXIE is the first step.
MOXIE will demonstrate how future explorers might produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing. The Martian atmosphere is completely different from Earth’s. Carbon dioxide makes up ~96% of the gas in Mars’ atmosphere. Oxygen is only 0.13%, compared to 21% in Earth’s atmosphere. So we are talking about developing a way to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Is it possible? Well, the trees do that all day. The question is, can we do it? Yes! But how?
MOXIE will collect CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the Martian atmosphere, then electrochemically split the CO2 molecules into O2 (oxygen) and CO (carbon monoxide) at 800° C. The O2 is then analyzed for purity before being vented back out to the Mars atmosphere along with the CO and other exhaust products.
MOXIE is situated in the front-right of the rover. The 17.1 kg apparatus will run for one hour per experiment in which it is expected to produce up to 10 grams of oxygen. MOXIE is one of the two technology demonstrations. If this experiment turns out to be successful, NASA may dedicate a full-scale mission to this technology.
What? A helicopter on Mars? Yes! The Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstration and a major highlight mission. For the first time in history, a human-made object will enjoy a powered flight on another planet. The 1.8-kilogram helicopter has been named ingenuity. I know you might be wondering how it will fly in the fragile atmosphere of Mars. Rather than explaining it in long paragraphs, I have a video for you given below to explain every aspect of the Mars Helicopter!