In these times, when a not-unprecedented but definitely generational winter storm overwhelmed my state’s power infrastructure and it’s made immediately polarizing (pun mildly intended) and political, it’s nice to have an event that lifts everyone’s spirits.
NASA has done it again.
The mission’s primary payload, the rover “Perseverance” would join previous rovers “Sojourner” (Mars Pathfinder, 1997), “Spirit” (Mars Exploration Rover A, 2004), “Opportunity” (MER-B, 2004), and “Curiosity” (Mars Science Laboratory, 2012). These rovers have evolved with technology to become larger, more mobile over longer distances, and carry much more sophisticated scientific equipment.
On February 18, 2021, Perseverance touched down in Jezero Crater on the surface of Mars using a similar “Sky Crane” delivery system used with Curiosity. Watching this “live” with the JPL MCC team was entertaining, as the role of that control team was as much spectator as it was public relations. I’ve talked in the past about how unmanned spacecraft control centers have different reactions and disciplines than what we had in Mission Control, but this was a big deal and deserved a little celebration – especially when there wasn’t much they could have done during the descent/landing once the process started.
Maybe the “grumpy old Flight Controller” in me has mellowed a bit (ha), but I was okay with the JPL team’s exuberance.
Is it “Live” or “Memorex”?
Watching it “live” (actually delayed by almost 11 minutes due to the distance between Earth and Mars at landing), we only heard the PAO audio and saw the JPL control center and flight controllers, with occasional graphics or simulated events. After the landing, the lander returned several videos that were captured in real-time of the event.
This official NASA video synchs up the real-time events with the audio and reaction on the ground as they were received back on Earth all the way down to “Tango Delta” – or “touchdown” on the surface of Mars. This is an incredibly enjoyable ride – enjoy it.
Tango Delta, indeed
Interplanetary trajectories are no small task. The orbital mechanics for the “rough” trajectory are simple enough to those of us who have studied/worked with them for so long. The real magic comes when you have a specific landing site targeted on a rotating planet orbiting your common star that is some 130+ million miles away (as the radio signal flies), but requires an orbital transit of some 300+ million miles. Confused? Take a look at this:
Much like we did with Space Shuttle rendezvous profiles, setting up the initial trajectory to intercept the target had a number of errors associated with it that required “corrections”. For Mars 2020, these took the form of 6 planned Trajectory Correction Maneuvers (TCMs) that fine-tuned the trajectory, including final landing site targeting and atmospheric entry conditioning.
Knowing everything that went into a Shuttle rendezvous, I definitely appreciate and admire the JPL interplanetary trajectory teams that have to work with multi-variant gravitational sources. We were orbiting Earth, and the gravitational effects of the Sun were fairly minimal in that reference frame. Interplanetary, though, you have to not only switch reference frames, but now deal with gravitational effects from the Sun (not to mention Jupiter and to a lesser extent Saturn!), but also with the perturbing effects of “solar wind” – that radiant pressure caused by coronal ejections of our home star. The math alone is daunting, much less coming up with the physical spacecraft technology that can accomplish the journey.
Bottom line: taking a spacecraft moving faster than a literal speeding bullet across the “interplanetary void”, targeting it to a precise location on the surface of another planet, and making it look simple — that’s the stuff of rocket science that can serve as a binding agent for people across a wide spectra of opinions.
We need more of this. Hopefully the photos and science returned by Perseverance will do just that.
As seen above, the first panorama from the “Mast Camera” onboard Perseverance is almost familiar to those of previous missions. The rocky surface with terrain rising in the background. The red coloration from the rusty oxidized dirt. The ochre colors of the Martian sky.
They’re almost comforting, in a way.
The photo to the right (or below on mobile) shows the landing footprint of Perseverance and the various components of the landing assembly.
So, what’s next?
Perseverance has a long list of tasks ahead of it. The landing site was selected and targeted specifically because, at least visually, it looks like the shoreline or delta of ancient flowing water. If that’s the case, then perhaps there are chemical trails or even fossilized remnants of ancient Martian “life”. Life, in this case, may be nothing more than microbial remains – as there’s nothing, to date, that even suggests anything other than that. HOWEVER – this is why we explore – to find out.
Science is all about proposing, testing, and correcting theories — not stating something as “settled” and then refusing to allow any challenges or even acknowledge that there might be questions that still need to be answered. That’s not science. Too much terrestrial “science” has been politicized along exactly these lines. We need to remove politics and opinion from (at least) space science and get back to true exploration and adventure.
The Mars 2020 mission includes a small helicopter/drone (nicknamed “Ingenuity” – fact sheet (PDF)) that will be used as a “technology demonstration” for perhaps future and larger flying vehicles to help explore even further on Mars.
Initially, this will be only a few feet off the ground for about 30 seconds. But, a major milestone will have been achieved by the first powered flight of an aerodynamic vehicle in the thin atmosphere of Mars! Hopefully successful, follow-on flights will attempt greater altitudes and distances further and further away from the lander.
… and yes, there are cameras onboard.
Perseverance has a (minimum) one-Martian-year (roughly 2 Earth years) mission timeline set up to explore the region. The photos will be amazing, but the real star of the show will be any and all returned science that helps us understand not only Martian history (Did it have water? Life? A thicker atmosphere? What happened?) but also ultimately our own.
Keep watching – I will be.
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