Mars and the year of Perseverance

Mars and the year of Perseverance
© Getty Images

Later this month, the Perseverance rover begins a seven-month voyage to Mars in what will be a vital precursor to human missions in the 2030s. When the name “Perseverance” was chosen for the 2020 Mars rover earlier this year, few would have predicted how apt that name would become in these difficult times. Since then, the nation and the world have been enduring unprecedented challenges from an ongoing worldwide pandemic to massive economic disruptions and a seismic realignment of perceptions of racism.

Some may ask why we should explore space with so many problems here on Earth. But the timing of this launch could not have been better. While humans will not be passengers on this trip, the mission represents human drama and achievement. It provides us with an inspiring story of what is possible when people of all backgrounds and nationalities work together.

It is also an extremely rare program during this day and age for another reason. Perseverance is the product of bipartisan support over multiple administrations. Perseverance was announced in late 2012 during the Obama administration. Eight years later, it will launch during the Trump administration and, if all goes well, land in February 2021 — which will be either the first term of a new administration or the second term of the current administration. No matter how divided we have become on other issues, we have remained united in support for space exploration. If successful, Perseverance could play a significant role in advancing our goal of sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

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Scheduled to land in February 2021, the rover shares the same basic design as the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in 2012. Like Curiosity, Perseverance faces an extremely complicated landing process that NASA calls the “Seven Minutes of Terror.” The vehicle will enter the Martian atmosphere traveling at approximately 13,000 miles per hour. However, the Martian atmosphere is not thick enough – it is only 1 percent the density of Earth’s atmosphere – to slow the vehicle down sufficiently so that it can land safely. Supersonic parachutes will deploy when the lander has reached a descent velocity of 1,000 miles per hour, and those parachutes will slow the vehicle down to 200 miles per hour.

However, even this is not slow enough. Braking rockets will then fire, bringing the lander to a hover at approximately 65 feet above the surface. At that point, Perseverance will be gently lowered down by a cable from the retrorocket pack, called the skycrane, until it is safely sitting on the surface of Mars as the retrorocket pack detaches itself from the cables and the rover and flies off and crashes a safe distance away. This entire landing process will happen autonomously during a period of seven minutes.

Perseverance is a truly remarkable vehicle. It will be carrying numerous experiments to Mars that will not only advance the goal of sending humans to the Red Planet, but will also search for evidence that Mars may once have sustained life. Even the discovery of microbial life (past or present) on another planet would completely rewrite our understanding of the nature of life in the universe.

Among the experiments critical for eventual human exploration of Mars is MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), which will extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere of Mars to create a chemical reaction to produce a small amount of oxygen. If successful, it will show that humanity should be able to manufacture oxygen (as well as other resources such as water and methane fuel) on the surface. This is critical if we ever hope to have a sustainable human presence on the Red Planet.

Additionally, Perseverance will carry a small helicopter called Ingenuity, marking the first time that an aircraft has ever flown on any planetary body other than Earth. Not only will Ingenuity provide remarkable images of the Martian surface, but, if successful, this technology could be a valuable tool for human explorers as they utilize drones to investigate hard-to-reach locations (cliff sides, caves, etc.) and provide the ability to do advanced reconnaissance.

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Perseverance will begin a multi-step sample return mission. The rover will drill for core samples that will be collected by a future robotic mission before the end of the decade and carried back to Earth. This will be the first time that samples will be returned from Mars and will enable scientists to study whether the regolith can be utilized by future explorers (agriculture, manufacturing, etc.) and to identify potential toxins such as perchlorates that could be deleterious to astronauts health and whether there are any signs of life.

Despite the challenges that face us here on Earth, we are entering what will almost certainly be one of the most exciting and relevant periods in the history of space exploration. Let us regard Perseverance as a symbol of the great things we can achieve today, and in the future, when people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities work together to explore the unknown.

Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc. and author of “Alcohol in Space: Past, Present and Future.”