NASA to Make History With New Mars Rover

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Issue 10, Volume 111

By Zoe Piccirillo 

You’ve heard of Mars rovers, but have you heard of Mars helicopters? NASA’s new Perseverance rover will land on Mars on February 18, 2021 for a historical mission to discover new signs of life and explore the possibility of human travel to the planet. Perseverance will also travel with a sidekick: a helicopter named Ingenuity.

NASA has sent four rovers to Mars, each with a unique mission, since the late 1990s. Sojourner was the first rover to successfully land on Mars, in 1997. It took pictures of Ares Vallis, an area of the planet with a diverse landscape of rocks. Sojourner also measured aspects of the weather on Mars such as wind speed and temperature. The Opportunity and Spirit rovers searched for signs of water on Mars in 2004. They discovered minerals that are often present near water such as grey hematite. Ultimately, they concluded that Mars once had water, held in lakes and as water vapor in the atmosphere. NASA sent a rover called Curiosity to Mars in 2012 to search for more evidence of water and measure radiation on the planet to determine how habitable the planet may be for humans in 2012. Curiosity found rocks that were once mud when water existed and high levels of radiation where humans would need special protections to survive on the planet.

Of all the Mars rovers, Perseverance seems to be the most ambitious: it aims to find signs of ancient life. Since water was once present on Mars, NASA believes life may have been present as well. For two years, the rover will collect rock and soil samples from the Jezero Crater, which was a 28-mile-wide delta and lake billions of years ago. Furthermore, Perseverance’s operations will allow scientists to interact with Martian samples for the first time in history: it will not only survey samples but also return them back to Earth.

While Perseverance surveys the terrain and searches for microbial fossils, Ingenuity has a different task: it will test the limits of planetary exploration. A four-pound, solar-powered helicopter that looks like a drone, Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet if it survives the challenging conditions for flight on Mars. The helicopter will have to withstand frigid temperatures, which can reach negative 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It will also have to adapt to the thin atmosphere, which makes it difficult to achieve lift on Mars. To withstand this, the helicopter is built with large rotor blades that spin faster than a typical helicopter would on Earth.

While this mission for Ingenuity is simply a test flight, the helicopter has the potential to revolutionize future missions on Mars. If Ingenuity can fly throughout Mars, it could provide a novel aerial viewpoint for high-definition images, and survey terrain difficult for rovers to access. The helicopter’s ability to travel above new terrain could vastly expand research on the Red Planet, as it could explore areas beyond those covered by past rovers.

Beyond its main mission to explore signs of life, Perseverance has various other research plans. One goal is to discover how sound is perceived differently on Mars. To do so, Perseverance is carrying two microphones to investigate aspects of sound. For example, Mars’s atmosphere is 96 percent carbon dioxide, which supposedly would muffle high-pitched sounds. Perseverance also carries new technologies, including a Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). MOXIE will attempt to convert carbon dioxide abundant in Mars’s atmosphere into breathable oxygen. The device could be a major source of oxygen for humans who travel to Mars, and it would support the notion that it is possible for humans to be on Mars.

From bringing the first Martian samples to Earth to launching the first aircraft on another planet, NASA’s upcoming mission poses challenges but also exudes innovation and excitement. Perseverance faces a difficult landing as Jezero Crater has diverse terrain, including cliffs and boulders. Ingenuity will have to lift off in an atmosphere unlike Earth’s. Yet, Perseverance and Ingenuity could be the first robots to tell us about extraterrestrial life that lived long before us, as well as propel the movement to send humans to Mars. The idea of human travel to Mars has long been fantasized, but it could finally become a reality if the rover and helicopter reveal more signs that it is possible. This mission will be a turning point for space travel, changing the questions about humans on Mars from “What if?” to “When?” While the next two years are still unknown, what’s to come after February 18 certainly seems promising.