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Mars rover ready to launch Thursday

Astronomy Blog
Published: Jul. 29, 2020 at 4:55 PM CDT
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(KSNB) - Thursday, July 30, 2020, is set to be the launch of another step in space exploration. The Mars Perseverance Rover is ready for launch, scheduled for 7:50 a.m. EDT. With it, are many scientific instruments, cameras, and even a drone-like helicopter (named Ingenuity), bringing the first aircraft to another planet. Many years of development and innovation from NASA have lead to this momentous occasion.

What is its mission?

Perseverance is a very similar rover to the most recent Curiosity rover, which landed in August of 2012. Both are about the size of an SUV, with six wheels and many scientific instruments. Curiosity has helped discover further evidence for persistent water on Mars in its past, methane in the atmosphere, and high levels of radiation, among many other things. Perseverance seeks to further these findings, and seek out new on its own.

The Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will land on Mars in February, 2021.
The Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will land on Mars in February, 2021.(NASA)

Perseverance will hopefully expand the understanding of the niche field of Astrobiology by seeking out evidence that Mars could have once had an environment which could harbor life in its ancient past. Life on Mars’ surface today is pretty unlikely. With a thin atmosphere one percent of ours, no magnetic field strong enough to deflect solar radiation, and crucially no liquid water, it’s quite unsuited for life we have on Earth. Investigating places such as the Jezero Crater on Mars (the landing site) will potentially find that at one point when there was water on the surface, it may have been capable to harbor life. There is even the ambition to collect a sample to return to Earth with a future mission.

Perseverance is in good company

Taking a step back, though, this isn’t our first trip to Mars. In fact, the U.S. has landed eight crafts successfully on Mars, as early as 1976 (Viking 1&2) and as recently as 2018 (InSight). In 2003, a pair of twin rovers were sent in close succession, the Mars Exploration Rovers known as Spirit and Opportunity. Opportunity long outlasted its expected mission time, finally coming to a close after 15 years just last year. Several satellites are also in orbit or have flown by, and even a few missions have been lost to the red planet, such as the Mars Climate Orbiter (below), which entered the atmosphere too low.

The Mars Climate Orbiter was launched in Dec 1998, and was destroyed when it entered the atmosphere of Mars, ending the mission.
The Mars Climate Orbiter was launched in Dec 1998, and was destroyed when it entered the atmosphere of Mars, ending the mission.(NASA)

Getting to Mars is hard...

The first hurdle to cross is just leaving our own planet. The rover is strapped in atop a ULA Atlas V rocket, which has the best success rate among all operational rockets, and launched the Curiosity rover in 2011. It takes a lot of power to break the Earth’s gravity, and once that’s done, the craft must be on a very specific trajectory to traverse millions of miles between the orbits of the two planets. If it can pin the narrow window to feel the gravity of Mars, it then has to slow down.

Remember how I said a few missions have been lost? This is where most of them have gone wrong. Most missions use the thin atmosphere to slow down and reach orbit to save on fuel. Too high, you sail off into interplanetary space. Too low, and you burn up or crash. There have been 26 successful missions to mars, which accounts for less than half of the attempts. Once you’re in the atmosphere, parachutes, airbags, and/or retro-rockets have to work without a hitch to settle the delicate instruments on the red surface. Success!

Find more information about the Mars 2020 mission at https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/
Find more information about the Mars 2020 mission at https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/(NASA)

When will it get there?

The rover has an expected landing of February 18, 2021, six and a half months after launch. Two days of that will be the most stressful. Thursday for the launch, and the day of the landing. During launch, we can watch it in real time. Here, we can delay the plan (up to August 15) to launch if the weather is not optimal, if something appears to not be working properly, or whatever the reason may be. Once it has traversed interplanetary space, there is about ten to fifteen minutes of delay for round-trip communication. The steps to land the craft on the surface, including a retro-rocket platform to stop its fall, lower the rover like a crane, and gently settling on the surface, will all happen at specific times that mission control will have programmed and sent away in advance. This will happen during those agonizing minutes of delay. We won’t know if it was a success or not until well after the anticipated time of landing. If all goes right, there will be much rejoicing.

The name was submitted and chosen from many essays submitted by young students, and the essay is etched on a small chip mounted on the body of the rover. The name “Perseverance” captures the attitude of humans to continue their efforts, like how we continue to aim for Mars in spite of the difficulties we face. There are three chips total, with the names of 10.9 million other people (including myself) to hitch a ride to Mars.

How can you watch?

Thursday morning, there will be several places to find a live stream. NASA-TV, NASA’s YouTube, and even on my own Facebook Page at facebook.com/kitcwx. Be sure to tune in at 6:50 CDT for this exciting endeavor!

You can learn even more about the mission and all the details at https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/

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