The Spacecraft Tarot: Perseverance

The strength tarot card represents the ability to overcome.

Whether you are battling an adversity, an enemy, or an inner demon, the urge to give up will be strong. You will be tempted to admit defeat, perhaps because you are exhausted, or maybe because you tend to second-guess yourself. Strength is what you will need to overcome all obstacles.

What better spacecraft to embody strength than the Perseverance Mars Rover, which recently enjoyed a successful landing on the Red Planet after a seven-month journey through space.

On Feb. 18, 2021, the teams at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) landed the largest and most sophisticated Mars rover ever built in the most difficult terrain a Mars rover has landed in. Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide ancient lakebed.

Although current Martian conditions are too too dry and too cold to support life, it was a different story three and half billion years ago. The climate used to be much warmer and Jezero Crater was home to a lake about the size of Lake Tahoe. The question NASA scientists have — and the question Perseverance is on a mission to answer — is whether this lake could have been home to microbial life?

In order to answer that question, Perseverance will be using a suite of instruments define characteristics of Martian geology, atmosphere, and potential signs of life. Some of these instruments include a multitude of advanced cameras, with abilities to take sweeping panoramas or zoom in very closely to detect organic compounds in the dirt.

Perseverance is also the first rover that will be collecting samples of Martian soil for a future NASA/European Space Agency mission to return to Earth. The rover has one arm that will be used to drill into the rock, and another arm to collect the samples into tubes. These tubes will be stored on board the rover until the JPL team decides to deposit them somewhere on the Martian surface for a future mission to find and pick up.

If Perseverance were to find evidence of ancient life, it would revolutionize our understanding of the universe. As of now, Earth is the only planet we know of that hosts life. If we were to find evidence of ancient life on Mars, it would suggest that life is a lot more common in our universe than we previously thought.

Perseverance also carries on board a number of demonstrations that will help prepare us to send future human explorers to the Red Planet. One of these experiments is the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), which is essentially a mechanical tree: a way to convert carbon-dioxide into oxygen. The Martian atmosphere is about 96% carbon dioxide and only 0.13% oxygen — compared to 0.04% and 21% on Earth, respectively. MOXIE will demonstrate a possible method for making the atmosphere breathable for future explorers.

Another experiment includes the very first flight test demonstration designed for another planet: the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Ingenuity had to be designed to accommodate for an atmosphere with only 1% of Earth’s density, as well as temperatures that can drop below minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of that, the helicopter is extremely light, with rotor blades that spin extremely fast by Earthly standards. The flight test will help determine whether robotic flying vehicles could benefit future missions, by providing a unique viewpoint or carrying payloads from one place to another.

Landing a rover on Mars is always difficult. Perseverance was no exception. The vast distance between Mars and Earth delays the signals that we send to the spacecraft by about ten minutes. In the seven minutes the spacecraft takes to travel from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the ground, we have almost no communication with the vehicle. These seven minutes are referred to as “the seven minutes of terror.” Only about half of the attempts from all of the world’s space agencies to Mars actually make it — and Perseverance had the added challenge of landing in the most difficult terrain yet.

The price of landing in Jezero Crater, where life could have possibly existed long ago, is the risk of landing on hills, rocks, or dunes. That’s why Perseverance used a new landing technology called Terrain-Relative Navigation, which allows the rover to autonomously survey its landscape and decide on the best place to land.

To successfully land Perseverance on Mars takes exactly the trait it was named after — perseverance. The JPL team faced the challenge of the most complicated landing on Mars yet, with the added difficulty of working during the COVID-19 pandemic. A couple minutes before the successful landing, Entry, Decent, and Landing lead Al Chen addressed his team: “It hasn’t been easy. I don’t think we’ve even all been at the same room at the same time.”

Perseverance is a reminder of the strength we need to thrive under pressure. Despite innumerable obstacles, Perseverance is safely on Mars, ready to begin the numerous scientific objectives that will improve our understanding of astrobiology and prepare us for future human missions to the Red Planet.

The Perseverance Mars Rover team looks at the first images the rover captured of Mars a short time after landing on the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Every week I will be sharing a new card from the Spacecraft Tarot. For more information about the series, read this.

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