For many, the first few months of 2021 felt like a grim attritional extension to the strenuous 2020. With countries around the world still experiencing various degrees of lockdown, it felt like a time when our attention was entirely focused on the crisis enveloping our planet – well, almost.
But out of the Covid-19 gloom, another story emerged in February that captivated public attention. For a few days, then weeks, our interest was drawn away from the virus circling Earth and instead fell on the remarkable exploits of NASA’s Mars 2020 Mission as it began to beam back remarkable photos and audio from the surface of the Red Planet.
It was perhaps fitting that during one of our darkest, most introspective periods, we were given a reminder of just how ingenious humans can be and just how far the exploits of human adventure can travel.
Missions to Mars
The rusty iron coloured planet called Mars orbits on average around 225 million km (140 million miles) from Earth – though that fluctuates considerably and a close approach between the two (minimum distance) is 54.6 million kilometres (33.9 million miles).
Mars has long fascinated humans and since the early 1970s, we’ve actually visited the planet quite regularly. In total, there have now been 49 different Mars missions, though their success has varied wildly, from the total launch failure to the mesmerising exploits of some of the recent rovers and everything in-between.
And if the latest feats of Mars exploration spark your imagination, why not check out our video on the rarely discussed Soviet mission to Mars in 1971, which resulted in the first landing on the planet.
Mars Exploration Program
Started in 1993, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP) has for the past twenty-eight years sent 10 separate missions to Mars, aiming to further our understanding of the Red Planet. This began in 1996 with the Mars Global Surveyor while the Mars 2020 Mission is its most recent venture.
Broadly speaking, the MEP comes with four principle goals:
- Determine if there is/or was life on Mars
- Study the planet’s geology and determine if water is present
- Study the climate
- And lastly – but certainly most excitingly – to prepare for human exploration on Mars
These 10 missions have come with varying degrees of success but despite MEP missions having some of the highest rates of failure within NASA, only two MEP vehicles have been lost, both part of the Mars’ Surveyor 98 Mission. Six missions are still active and have broadened our understanding of everything from the chemical backup of rocks and persistent liquid water from the past to atmospheric methane and organic Martian material.
We’re still not exactly on the verge of sending people to Mars, but it does feel like we’re getting closer.
Mars 2020 Mission
The latest MEP mission, and the main focus of our video today, is the Mars 2020 Mission complete with its Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Helicopter. Again, its goals are very much a continuation of the past MEP Missions, but most would probably agree that things seemed to have been taken up a notch or two.
Its main task is to search for habitable conditions on Mars – or signs of it at least – and will include examining biosignatures that NASA hopes will reveal evidence of past life and water, collecting rock samples that will be retrieved by a future mission and testing the latest robotic technology that might one day facilitate our own visit to Mars.
The mission was formally announced in 2012 with the instruments to be used chosen in 2014 after an open competition involving various manufacturers. This was a decade of uncertainty for NASA, especially after it was hit with a $300 million cut to its planetary science division in 2013. A cut that appeared at odds with President Obama’s pledge in 2010 that the U.S would send a crewed orbital mission to Mars by the mid-2030s.
But if we’ve learnt anything from the past few years, politics and science don’t always get along and after plenty of wrangling and numerous changes in mission profile, Mars 2020 secured a budget that would stretch to $2.8 billion over a decade.
Much of the focus of the Mars 2020 Mission has been on the two quite extraordinary little vehicles onboard, but let’s be honest, without a suitable spacecraft, they’re just two very expensive toys. The spacecraft that delivered the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter was formed of three separate stages.
The first was the 539 kg (1,188 lb) cruise stage tasked with getting everything from Earth to Mars. This was sent up into space on the back of an Atlas V541 rocket and measured 2.65 meters (8.7 feet) in diameter and 1.6 meters (5.2 feet) tall. The cruise stage was mostly built using aluminium and has an outer ring of ribs covered with solar panels measuring 2.65 metres (8.7 feet) in diameter, which provide the spacecraft with up to 600 watts of power near Earth and 300 watts close to Mars. A star scanner and sun sensor are both used to orientate the cruise stage and maintain its course by analysing the position of the sun and stars in relation to itself.
The second component of the spacecraft is the Entry, Descent, and Landing System (EDLS) that comes with a 575 kg (1,268 lb) aeroshell descent vehicle and 440 kg (970 lb) heat shield. The aeroshell is formed of an aluminium honeycomb structure sandwiched between graphite-epoxy face sheets and is responsible for keeping the invaluable scientific instruments and vehicles inside safe as the EDLS comes through Mars’ atmosphere. The heat shield is made of a phenolic-impregnated carbon ablator and can withstand temperatures of up to 1300°C (2400°F).
The final section is the 1,070 kg (2,360 lb) descent stage needed to safely deliver Perseverance and Ingenuity onto the surface of Mars. It comes with a 21.5 meter-wide (71 ft), 81 kg (179 lb) parachute, made of polyester and nylon, and has small thrusters designed to control its descent as it nears the surface of the planet. Oh, and I know this is pretty niche, but if you happen to be into your parachutes and binary code, then we’ve got a fun little tidbit of information for you later in the video.
Remember how I said this project was going to cost around $2.8 billion? Well, around $2.2 billion of that is going on development of the Perseverance Rover – and that’s with significant cost-cutting already occurring. Mars exploration certainly isn’t cheap but the potential benefits could well be enormous.
The design of Perseverance is principally the same as the Curiosity Rover that touched down on Mars on 6th August 2012 but includes several upgrades. It comes with seven primary payload instruments, nineteen cameras, two microphones and perhaps most impressively, its own helicopter.
Perseverance is 2.9 metres (9 ft 6 in) in length, with a diameter of 2.7 metres (8 ft 10 in) and a height of 2.2 metres (7 ft 3 in) – which is roughly the size of a small SUV. It has four durable aluminium wheels, each 52.5 cm (20.7 in) in diameter and covered with cleats for traction and curved titanium spokes for springy support. It also comes with a single 2.1 metres (6 ft 11 in) long robotic arm which includes a complex rock-coring and sampling mechanism that can quickly and easily store samples in sterile test tubes.
This little Mars adventurer also comes with its own radioisotope thermoelectric power generator along with 4.8 kg (11 lb) of Plutonium-238 oxide as its power source. The heat given off from the plutonium is converted into electricity, which at launch is equivalent to about 110 watts. This electricity then powers the two lithium-ion rechargeable batteries which are responsible for all of Perservence’s movements but need to be recharged frequently. This power source has been designed to work continuously for at least the next 14 years, but most agree that it will still be producing energy long after this.
The seven instruments included on Perseverance are:
- The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment, a rudimentary technology that aims to produce small amounts of oxygen for the Martian atmosphere – something it did successfully on 20th April, when it produced 5.37 grams (0.1 ounces) of O2 in one hour. The idea is – and I’m talking pretty distant here – that we will be able to scale up this small instrument and provide enough oxygen for humans on Mars.
- A planetary instrument for X-Ray lithochemistry, which is an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer used to study the elemental composition of Martian surface materials.
- A Radar Imager for Mars’ subsurface experiment – a Norweigen built radar that will be directed underground to a depth of 10 metres (33 ft) to study densities, buried rocks and hopefully even underground water or ice.
- The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer incorporates a set of sensors that will measure temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity, radiation, and dust particle size and shape.
- The Supercam comes with a lofty name but one it probably deserves. This will provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy in rocks and regolith from a distance, using two lasers and four spectrometers that NASA hopes will reveal past habitability.
- The Mastcam-Z, where the majority of the rover’s cameras are located.
- And finally, the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals is a slightly wordy mouthful used to describe this ultraviolet Raman spectrometer used to assess fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Perseverance comes with its own experimental helicopter named Ingenuity that will be used to test the feasibility of flight within Mars’ atmosphere, while potentially also scouting routes for the rover itself.
It comes with a 30 Martian day experimental flight test window – which is 31 days to us Earthlings – and weighs less than 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds) – making it about the same weight as three basketballs. Ingenuity comes with two 1.2 metres (4 ft) rotor blades and a solar panel above that charges the Lithium-ion batteries. This provides enough power for a single 90-second flight per day, a flight that consumes around 350 watts of electricity.
It can’t exactly go far with an operational range of up to 300 meters (980 feet ) and a mighty altitude limit of just 10 metres (32.8 ft) but considering this tiny helicopter represents the first-ever powered flight on a different planet, I think we can forgive it for its operational limitations. Especially when you think that the atmosphere of Mars is around 100 times thinner than that on Earth, making it considerably harder for anything to take off from its surface. In fact, flying a helicopter on Mars is the equivalent of flying a helicopter at 30,000 metres (100,000 ft) on Earth, which never happens as the record helicopter altitude on planet Earth is less than half of that.
Finally, there is quite a nice touch included on this historic aircraft because Ingenuity carriers with a tiny piece of fabric taken from the wing of the Wright Flyer, the first aircraft to make a controlled flight near Kitty Hawk in 1903 – another topic we’ve already covered on Megaprojects just in case you’re interested.
The Journey to Mars
With the human race rather haphazardly attempting to deal with a global pandemic, Mars 2020 blasted clear from plague planet on 30th July. I don’t particularly have anything to tell you about the seven-month journey as it seems to have all gone like clockwork – and after all, that was the easy bit.
While success rates have improved in the last decade or so, more than a few man-made objects have smashed into Mars during our 50 years of exploration. Quite simply, the list of things that can go wrong is long enough to give any NASA employee sleepless nights and nine separate missions have failed at this point. Whether it’s one of many possible system malfunctions, structural issues, atmospheric anomalies and even just plain bad luck when you land in precisely the wrong spot, there was plenty to set the nerves on edge on 18th February as the EDLS detached from the cruise stage and began its descent through Mars’ atmosphere – a period known to the NASA team as the ‘seven minutes of terror’.
As the EDLS hurled towards Mars, its speed went from 16,000 km/h (10,000 mph) to roughly 1,600 km/h (1000 mph) in about a minute, thanks to the heat loss in the Martian atmosphere. Once through, the EDLS jettisoned its lower heat shield and deployed its parachutes, which slowed the craft further to 320 km/h (200 mph) while still being about 1.9 km (1.2 mi) from the surface.
Twenty seconds after the parachute appeared, the upper shield completely detached, leaving the descent stage to make a slow, controlled descent with the aid of its boosters before completing the landing with the wonderfully named ‘sky crane manoeuvre’. While still 20 metres (66ft) above the ground, the descent stage held its altitude and began lowering the rover via cables to the surface of Mars. As this was happening, the rover was busy preparing itself by unstowing its mobility system and locking its legs and wheels into landing position. The moment the rover sensed it had safely touched down, it cut the cables, allowing the descent stage to crash land well clear of the rover.
Of course, because of the delay in relaying information back to Earth, the news that Perseverance had made an almost perfect landing in the Jezero Crater took 12 minutes to travel back to those biting their nails in anticipation. Once the news broke, celebrations erupted as nearly nine years of hard work was finally realised.
The Real Mission Begins
As complex and nerve-shredding as the landing had been, it merely signalled the beginning of the rover’s real mission. Within a matter of hours, pictures were being beamed back to Earth and this was followed shortly after by the slightly eerie recording of the Martian breeze – the first-ever audio recording from a different planet.
The video of the landing was soon seen by millions around the world and I must say there was something hugely dramatic about watching this man-made object descend to the surface of Mars. And as promised, when the parachute opened it revealed a pattern that to the overwhelming majority of us was nothing more than a random design, but actually included a secret message written in binary code. It read, ‘dare mighty things’ – a quote taken from Theodore Roosevelt – and also the GPS coordinates of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the center essentially running the whole show.
Both Perseverance and Ingenuity reported a clean bill of health but it would be nearly three weeks until the rover made its first test drive on 4th March 2021 and Ingenuity wouldn’t make its maiden flight until 19th April.
Since then, Ingenuity has made a further 6 flights, the longest of which lasted 140 seconds and saw the helicopter cover 215 metres (705ft). Perseverance has also been busy and has begun visiting the sites of interest set out by NASA. These include the bottom and upper parts of the 3.4 to 3.8 billion-year-old Neretva Vallis delta, the ancient shoreline covered with Transverse Aeolian Ridges (dunes) and mass wasting deposits, and a climb to Jezero Crater rim. This particular area was chosen because it’s thought likely to contain perchlorates, a chemical compound that often points to perchlorate-reducing microbes. Basically, if you’re looking for very basic forms of life, present now or from the past, this is the kind of place to start.
It’s not quite as simple as just galavanting off into the sunset as Perseverance needs to return periodically to a predesignated depot with rock samples before continuing on. The samples will be recorded and then collected by a future mission – which one isn’t particularly clear, but at some point, something will pick these samples up.
The global reaction when Perseverance safely touched down showed us that those back on Earth needed a win and a wonderfully adventurous and scientific distraction from the planet’s ongoing crisis. This wasn’t the first time excellent quality images were beamed back from Mars, nor was it the first major landing – but this one did feel special.
The audio recordings, oxygen production and pioneering flights from Ingenuity really gave us the impression that our exploration of Mars is moving forward. Don’t get me wrong, geological examinations are vital, but for many, they don’t exactly get the blood racing. However, with such wonderful advancements in technology, we were able to witness the landing and progress of the mission in more detail than we ever have.
And yet, it’s not just about Perseverance and Ingenuity. On 14th May 2021, the Chinese Tianwen-1 also made a successful landing on Mars to take the number of missions currently operating on the planet to four, with another eight orbiting above.
We’re still someway off sending humans to Mars, but in the last few years, some huge strides have been taken. The successful production of oxygen, though incredibly small, does show that this experimental technology works, while the relatively smooth mission of Mars 2020 also indicates a degree of stability that we’ll surely need.
This is a mission that is but the latest in a long line aiming to peel back the mysteries of Mars. Maybe we’ll find evidence of life from the past and then again maybe we won’t. But either way, this mission is helping to pave the way for humanity’s long-awaited visit to the Red Planet and came at a time when we could really do with an other-worldly distraction from the turbulence occurring on Earth.