The Perseverance Rover: A Personal Perspective
by Ryder Beeler
Touchdown! On February 18, 2021, the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars as millions of people watched the event all around the world. As I watched the landing, I was reminded of the time when I was seven years old. A friend of my parents, Ms. Jules Lee, worked for Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as a navigational engineer and she invited us to JPL for a visit and private tour. We saw the premises and even visited Mission Control, as well as what is known as the Clean Room. Engineers dressed in full body protective suits, caps, shoe coverings, gloves, and face masks that prevent even the smallest piece of dust or hair ruining sensitive instruments were working on a $2 billion spacecraft named Perseverance, which was set to launch some time in the next decade. And here we are: Perseverance got launched, successfully landed, and is already exploring Mars!
The Perseverance expedition has been widely covered in the news, but there are some aspects about Perseverance and Ingenuity that the public may not know about. I was honored to reconnect with our family’s friend, Jules Lee, who is one of the navigational engineers at JPL in Pasadena. I interviewed her and am very happy to be able to share some information with regards to the mission.
The main purpose of the mission is to see if there have been living organisms on the planet in the past or if they still exist in the present. Perseverance was stationed at Jezero Crater since it used to be a lake filled with water, which is required for life. It will take samples of the rocks in the ground, which will be stored in the rover until brought back to Earth. Once back, the samples will be tested for any water or remains of previously living organisms. Ingenuity will then be flying around the area surrounding the rover doing weather reports. Ingenuity is in its operations demo phase and is the first helicopter on Mars. Here is some further information from NASA on Ingenuity: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/6-things-to-know-about-nasas-ingenuity-mars-helicopter
As you now know, Perseverance and Ingenuity are the two main components of a rover program that were sent to Mars. However, did you know how Perseverance is linked to the next major mission or that the whole mission itself is much older than you think? Mrs. Lee stated that the Perseverance will play a major role in NASA’s next mission. The mission, which is not yet named, will be responsible for bringing the samples that Perseverance is currently collecting back to Earth. These samples will be used to determine if there was, or better yet now is, life on Mars. Perseverance didn’t just start in 2015 when it began to be built. The simple idea for the Perseverance was developed around the late 1990’s – early 2000’s. Approximately 15 years later, it had gained full attention from NASA and the build commenced. A little after that, the route for Perseverance was plotted, the spot of landing was chosen, and after the physical completion, multiple checks took place to ensure that the rover was in perfect condition.
In addition to some of the better known details, there are also some that do not receive as much coverage in the news: for instance, the fact that the United States wasn’t the only country involved in Perseverance. The mission was not just funded by and constructed solely here. Other space programs have contributed financial and material resources to the program where NASA / JPL would trade items and materials with space programs abroad, like Centro de Astrobiologia Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial in Spain and Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt in Norway. Secondly, communication between Earth and the rover sometimes faces serious challenges. Signals can be intercepted by a piece of space debris or a space rock. And this is particularly stressful for all the engineers at Mission Control during what is called “the seven minutes of terror,” which refers to the entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of the rover. This is such an anxious time because events take place much quicker than the radio signals can reach Earth from Mars for communication. Rovers communicate with Earth directly, but with Perseverance, communication did not get turned on for a month or so, until all of its diagnostics and checkouts were done. The Mars orbiters, Odyssey, MRO and MAVEN, helped out relaying telemetry engineering data in near real time during Perseverance’s EDL on February 18th. For further information on NASA’s Mars Program, check out their website: https://mars.nasa.gov/#mars_exploration_program/1
When I think back to the day that I visited JPL Mission Control and witnessed the engineers’ work on NASA’s next project, I had no idea that this would be the Perseverance as we know it now. Perseverance is currently exploring a planet 190.09 million miles from Earth. We can expect the next mission to launch within a decade. How exciting it will be to witness another interplanetary touchdown!