Mars 2020 is space program adopted by NASA to launch Perseverance rover on July 30th.

As of this July 20th, it’s been 51 years since the launch of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong said the most iconic and unforgettable sentence of all time: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

Space research has come a long way since then. Many developed and developing countries are taking up space projects to achieve new records. Space research and space projects are becoming a measurement for a country’s intellect and development. Now NASA is pacing fast towards its goal to not only explore the living conditions and/or ancient living conditions on Mars but also considering sending human beings to Mars. NASA is taking another step towards the goal through Perseverance rover.

Why Mars? 

Mars
mars

Mars is considered to be a sister planet to Earth. It has approximately the same duration of time i.e. 24 hours, 39 minutes. It is also a rocky planet like Earth. It is very similar to Earth geographically. Its surface comprises of polar caps, deserts, canyons etc. We know about these similarities after years of exploration of Mars’ surface.

What did we find in the first attempt?

In 1964, Mariner 4, a Mars flyby designed by NASA, was successful in taking pictures of Mars surface. It was the first success in exploration of Mars’ surface. But the pictures showed which was not hoped for.

First images of Mars Ever recieved

All the planet scientists in NASA expected the pictures to reveal some sign of civilization on Mars. On the contrary, the pictures revealed that Mars was a red, rocky, cold and barren land with no sign of life.

NASA was not at all disappointed by the news from Mariner 4. They continued research on Mars and took up Viking program, in which they launched Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1975. Both the Vikings consisted of an orbiter and a lander. In the Viking program, the main objective of the orbiters was to take pictures of the entire planet Mars, so that planet scientists can map out various places and also conclude some facts from these pictures. From the pictures taken by Viking orbiter, scientists observed huge river valleys which were flooded with water to form deep valleys, large areas contained branched streamed networks which suggested there was rainfall on the surface, volcanoes and mountains. After entering Mars’ orbit, the Viking lander lands on the surface.


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Viking lander: First landing onto Mars

Viking lander conducted biological experiments to find life on Martian soil if it ever existed. Viking program was a huge step in Mars Exploration by NASA. It costed NASA 3.5 billion dollars in 1975.

First Rover ever:

Mars Pathfinder was the next important and notable Mars space mission taken up by NASA in which they introduced rover along with orbiter. NASA took this mission as a challenge to complete the mission in only 280 million dollars. Mars Pathfinder was launched in 1997 and the rover was named as Sojourner. Mars Pathfinder laid the foundation to most of the technology used in the Mars Exploration Rovers mission started by NASA in 2003. In this mission, scientists introduced an innovative and fascinating landing for the Pathfinder. This landing involves an entry capsule, supersonic parachute and large airbags.

When Pathfinder entered the orbit’s atmosphere, the supersonic parachute is pulled it safely and slowly into Mars’ atmosphere and when it is above a certain height above ground, airbags are blown up around the Pathfinder and this big ball of airbags starts to bounce on the Mars’ surface. 

supersonic parachute
Airbags

When this ball comes to rest, the airbags are deflated and the rover, in this mission, Sojourner, under the airbags, comes out and takes a panoramic image and sends it back to Earth to know its position on Mars’ map.

After Mars Pathfinder, NASA went on to Mars Exploration Rovers program, under which they launched Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004

Rover’s Design:

Rover

A rover is a six-wheeled, solar-powered robot that stands 1.5 m high, 2.3 m wide and 1.6 m long. A rover weighs 180 kg, 35 kg of which is the wheel and suspension system.

Communication:

The rover has X band low-gain and X band high-gain antenna so that communications can happen to and from Earth. The low-gain antenna is omnidirectional and it transmits data at a lesser rate to Deep Space Networks (in USA, Spain and Australia) on Earth. The higher-gain antenna sends signals at a faster rate.

Pamcast Assembly:

  • Panoramic Cameras (Pancam), two cameras with colour filter wheels: they determine the texture, colour, mineralogy, and structure of the local terrain.
  • Navigation Cameras (Navcam), two cameras that have larger fields of view, used for navigation and driving
  • The rover’s arm consists of various types of X-ray spectrometers to determine the chemical combinations present in a rock or dust.
  • A periscope assembly for the Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES), which identifies promising rocks and soils for closer examination, and determines the processes that formed them.
  • The rover also consists of arrays of solar panels for power and needs at least 100 watts to drive. It runs on VxWorks embedded OS on a radiation-hardened 20 MHz RAD6000 CPU with 128 MB of DRAM with error detection and correction and 3 MB of EEPROM.
  • The rover also consists of arrays of solar panels for power and needs at least 100 watts to drive. It runs on VxWorks embedded operating system on a radiation-hardened 20MHz RAD6000 CPU with 128 MB of DRAM with error detection and correction and 3 MB of EEPROM.

Mars Exploration Rovers (MER):

All rovers related to MER mission have been created by Jet Propulsion Laboratory under NASA.MER started in 2003 with the launch of MER-1and MER-2 in 2004. Spirit and Opportunity are twin rovers in MER-1 and MER-2 respectively.

Scientists quote both the rovers as ‘geologists’ that have been sent to Mars to study different rocks in their reach and understand if life existed on Mars.

Rover

Though both the rovers were intended to work for only 90 sols (1 sol is 1 day on Mars), Spirit stayed in contact with the Earth for 6 years and Opportunity stayed in contact for 14 years.


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Dust Devils

Dust devils are heavy dust storms that occur frequently in Mars. These storms cleaned up both the rovers’ solar panels by which they were able to work for longer years.

Both the rovers have provided lot of information about Martian environment and surface.  

Then Curiosity rover was launched in 2012 whose objective was to explore Gale crater where all the planet scientists believed would have signs of water. 

curiosity rover prototype

Curiosity sent back pictures that proved that their beliefs were right.

Gale crater, circled spot: landing of Curiosity.

While Spirit and Opportunity only used X-ray spectrometers to analyse a rock, Curiosity can drill into the rock and with the help of SAM or CheMin analysis inside the rover, it can analyse the sample more thoroughly, just like a scientist!!! It can also vaporize a small portion with infrared laser and examine resulting spectra of elemental composition.

Perseverance and Ingenuity:

Be a Virtual Guest for the M2020 Perseverance/Ingenuity launch ...
source:NASA

Perseverance is a MER to be launched on July 30th 2020 and predicted for landing on Mars in February 2021 at Jezero crater. This rover is going to be followed by a drone helicopter called Ingenuity which would act as the rover’s guide to take the best route possible.

Ingenuity

Perseverance has a very identical design when compared to Curiosity.

check this : Seven Facts to Know About the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover

The main objective of Perseverance is to understand astrobiology on Mars and collect rock samples which will be returned to Earth in future missions. This rover is also going to demonstrate a key technology to support life on Mars, by producing oxygen from carbon dioxide by Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment. NASA is currently working with Europe Space Agency (ESA) to create a fetch rover (predicted to be launched in 2026), which will collect samples cached by Perseverance and those samples are returned back to Earth. Perseverance is a really big step in Mars Exploration because if everything goes according to plan then scientists will be able to work with samples from Mars’ surface, which may unravel secrets of evolution on Mars and much more.

Conclusion:

NASA has come a long way in Mars Exploration in the last 58 years from flyby Mariner 4 to Perseverance, from taking pictures of Mars surface from faraway to confident enough to bring Mars surface samples to Earth. The success of NASA in Mars Exploration makes Colonization of Mars possible and not just a pipe dream anymore.  Don’t miss the launch of Perseverance on July 30th, at 4:50 UTC i.e. 10:20 IST.

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