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The New Mars Rover Is The Most Advanced Yet, Here’s Why

Humans love shooting robots at Mars. Since 1960 there have been a total of 56 missions

to the red rusty planet. Right now, there are six active satellites orbiting the planet,

and down on the surface, the InSight lander and Curiosity rover are still going about

their missions. They may have some company soon, as we’ve set our sights on Mars again

with NASA’s Perseverance rover due to launch later in the summer of 2020. So with so many

missions to Mars already, what will Perseverance do that the previous 56 missions didn’t?

Well, hopefully get to Mars safely, of course. That’s kind of step one for any extra-planetary

excursion, but plenty of past missions failed by missing the planet, crashing into the planet,

or just didn’t get off our own planet entirely. Remember those 56 missions? Well fewer than

half were successful. And of course, once Perseverance gets there, it has to land. Perseverance

is very similar to Curiosity, so the famous seven-minutes-of-terror landing technique

from 2012, including the sky crane final stage, will see action a second time. Reusing successful

designs and spare hardware helps save money, time, and reduces risk. This time, though,

some upgraded tech will make the landing more accurate than ever. The first is a range trigger,

also known as a “smart chute.” Curiosity opened its parachute as soon as the heat shield

slowed the craft to a desired speed, but Perseverance will deploy its chute earlier or later depending

on how far it is from its landing target. The second improvement to Perseverance’s

landing is terrain-relative navigation. Using a bevy of onboard cameras to study the rapidly

approaching surface and comparing it to maps of the landing site, the rover can divert

itself from hazards and land in a safer area. All the additional cameras and a microphone

onboard the rover mean engineers will get a better understanding of what’s happening

during a risky and crucial part of the mission, but they also mean that we, the general public,

can be right there along for the ride. We are going to get to virtually strap in for

the seven minutes of terror and I, for one, cannot wait! These improvements will shrink

the target area the rover will land in by over 50%, down to an ellipse about 10 kilometers

in diameter. With a shrunken landing area, the rover can land a couple of kilometers

closer to its prime work site. That may not sound like much, but considering the slow

and careful pace the rover has to traverse the planet, it could save as much as a year

in commute time, effectively getting more useful time out of the mission’s limited

lifespan. The new rover will also feature updated software that allows for more autonomous

driving and resource management, as well as improved wheels after Curiosity’s deteriorated

faster than expected. Hopefully “Perseverance” turns out to be a fitting name. There’s

another benefit to the precision landing, and it is a game-changer for Mars missions.

Perseverance can finally study more interesting parts of Mars that were previously off limits

because of perilous terrain. Places that, because of that terrain, may still harbor

evidence of ancient microbial life. The mission’s chosen landing site is Jezero Crater. While

it’s dry today, scientists believe it was once an ancient river delta, and thus could

have supported life. Sniffing out biosignatures is Perseverance’s main mission, and its

onboard suite of tools reflects that. It has a larger turret on the end of its robotic

arm, that houses a camera, two science instruments, and a drill to collect rock cores. And of

course, scientists took this opportunity to give the instruments amusing acronyms, like

MOXIE, the experiment for producing oxygen, and the SHERLOC UV laser that can detect organic

compounds. Inside the rover’s body is a workspace dedicated to caching those core

samples in tubes, that the rover will then leave on the surface of Mars. “Why would

it leave them behind?!” I hear you ask. Because Perseverance is actually the first

of a new type of mission. Thanks to the landing techniques it will pioneer, future missions

will be able to land close to this precious cache of samples, collect them, and return

them to Earth where they can be studied in labs.  Everything has been building to this.

The lessons learned from failures, misses, crashes, the data from orbiters, the experience

from past successful landings, all of it brings us to Perseverance. After 60 years of launches,

humans may be just two more steps away from laying our hands on Martian soil, and knowing

that we’re not alone.

Hey, remember Curiosity’s wheels, and how they had that odd cutout pattern? It has a

useful purpose, but it also spells out JPL in morse code. Yeah, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

has been stamping its name all over Mars for the last eight years.

If you want to check out more on how Perseverance will try and make oxygen on Mars, check out

this Focal Point episode on MOXIE. Be sure to subscribe to Seeker and thanks for watching.