NASA has a new toy to play with on Mars, but the space agency has some important work to do before the Perseverance rover is ready to start rolling through its new stomping grounds.
After traversing nearly 300 million miles over the past nine months, NASA’s Perseverance rover has successfully landed on Mars. During a NASA press conference today, Adam Steltzner, Perseverance chief engineer, said the landing “went as smoothly as we wanted it to go.”
“I almost feel like we’re in a dream,” said Jennifer Trosper, deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during a post-landing press conference held yesterday.
Indeed, there’s lots to be excited about. Perseverance has landed inside the 28-mile-wide (45-km) Jezero crater, the site of a former lake and river delta. The rover appears to be facing southeast, its power systems look good, and its batteries have already charged to 95% capacity, said Trosper.
Speaking earlier today at the presser, Aaron Stehura, the deputy phase lead for entry, descent, and landing, said the landing site looks “relatively safe,” as it’s free from boulders, cliffs, and other hazards. It “took lots of time and effort to identify such a safe spot,” he added.
Geologist Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for the Mars 2020 mission, said she’s transfixed by the images, particularly a new photo showing the right wheel of the rover on the dusty surface.
During today’s press conference, Morgan pointed out some rocks seen in the photo, which appear pockmarked. She’s curious to know “what these rocks even mean,” as they’re of instant geological significance. Such holes are known in volcanic rocks, but also rocks of sedimentary origin, explained Morgan, who said she’s excited to find out.
Morgan was also pleased to learn that Perseverance had landed in a geologically interesting area, including near a fractured unit NASA dubs Canyon de Chelly. Observations previously done from above can now be confirmed by the rover, she said.
Pauline Hwang, surface strategic mission manager at NASA’s JPL, said Percy is “great,” “healthy,” “highly functional,” and “awesome,” during today’s presser. The rover has successfully communicated with orbiters and relayed data through NASA’s Deep Space Network. Mission specialists have successfully fired some pyros on the rover to unfasten equipment that had to be bolted down for the trip from Earth. Hwang said this has already been done to release an antennae and covers on the two Hazard Avoidance Cameras (Hazcams), but no instruments have been moved yet.
Speaking on NASA TV during the minutes following the landing, Jessica Samuels, the surface mission manager for the Mars 2020 project, said her team must now adjust to a new clock, in which the Martian days, or sols, are 24 hours and 39.5 minutes long. Her team has begun they initial check-outs of the rover to make sure the SUV-sized vehicle and its many instruments are working properly.
Indeed, the team has entered into baby-steps mode, as “Percy” is being readied for the science stage of the mission, which likely won’t begin until the summer, according to Trosper. The team is also working to stabilize the rover’s power and thermal system, as well as its communication capabilities, after which time the team can transmit upgraded software to the rover.
During the next several sols, the team will aim Percy’s antennae toward Earth and deploy its remote sensing mast, which is equipped with five cameras (the entire six-wheeled vehicle has 23 cameras). Hwang said the mast could be deployed as early as Saturday, which will be followed by lots of new images, including a shot of the rover’s deck and a panoramic color view of the landing spot. NASA also hopes to release a high-definition video—with audio—captured by Perseverance during its descent to the Martian surface, which should include the final 32 feet (10 meters) before it touched the ground. That sounds amazing, and we’ve been told to expect that on Monday.
NASA also released a stunning photo of the rover being lowered to the surface and an image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite that has been at Mars since 2006, showing the rover descending to the surface with the parachute unfurled.
Also on Monday, NASA will transmit new software to the rover, which will be followed by several “transitional” days, said Trosper. Assuming all goes well, the team will then start to prepare for the machine’s modest first drive, in which the rover will traverse forward about 16 feet (5 meters) and then retreat back to its original position. This first drive could happen as early as sol 9, said Hwang, which would be followed by a longer drive shortly afterwards.
Excitingly, the deployment of Ingenuity—a tiny helicopter—will be among Perseverance’s first tasks once it’s deemed fit for action. A promising dune field happens to be located directly in front of the vehicle, and that might be a good spot, or “helipad location” in the words of Hwang, to deploy the 4-pound vehicle, which is currently attached to the belly of the rover. Ingenuity will have to survive a 5-inch drop to the surface, which shouldn’t be a problem.
Ingenuity is a bare-bones technology demonstration, a possible precursor to a more ambitious mission. Steltzner said the helicopter is capable of taking color images and video, but the collection of engineering data will be the initial priority. Perseverance will also take images of Ingenuity during the tests, he added.
Should the test work, Ingenuity will be the first aerial vehicle to take flight on an alien world (as far as we know). It’ll take about 10 sols for Perseverance to deploy Ingenuity and get out of harm’s way, while the flight tests will happen over the course of 30 sols. These flight tests, in which Ingenuity will attempt around five hops, should happen around sol 60, which isn’t until this spring, said Hwang.
After this, the rover’s software will go through yet another upgrade, this time to update its autonomous navigational capabilities. Perseverance will then proceed toward its first science site, yet to be determined, and begin its research activities, which won’t happen until the summer.
Eventually, Perseverance will collect surface samples and place them inside tiny canisters, which the rover will then drop to the surface. A future mission, perhaps next decade, will then retrieve these samples and bring them to Earth for analysis.
Whereas Curiosity showed that Mars was once habitable, Perseverance will try to find traces of actual life. The rover—a laboratory on wheels—will hunt for microfossils of the Martian equivalent of bacteria or algae, which may have eked out an existence back when Mars had flowing water on its surface.