We — not as a nation but as humans — will not give up. The human race will always persevere into the future.— Alexander Mather, winner of the “Name the Rover” essay contest
The spacecraft carrying NASA’s Perseverance rover entered the Martian atmosphere traveling over 12,000 miles per hour. Thrusters kept the spacecraft on course while a supersonic parachute slowed its descent. Back on Earth, the landing team received a message informing them of a malfunction, but an 11-minute communication delay meant nothing could be done. The team in the control room could only watch as the rover descended, hovered and finally landed on the Red Planet. Landing team leader Al Chen described the moment as “nine years of work, seven minutes of terror.”
The nine years of work that led to the Feb. 18, 2021 landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars is an engineering feat unlike any other. We’ll be focusing on the work that went into designing the Mars 2020 rover and the Ingenuity Mars helicopter that hitched a ride on Perseverance.
The Perseverance rover was constructed at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Engineers on the High Bay 1 clean room wore white protective clothing while building hardware for the rover mission. These “bunny suits” prevented particles and bacteria from damaging sensitive equipment and prevented microbes from hitching a ride on the rover and passing themselves off as Martian life.
Engineers based Perseverance’s design largely on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012. (Curiosity’s latest tweet includes a panoramic view of Mars’s Gale Crater.) Much of Perseverance’s major hardware is made up of heritage components from Curiosity, reducing cost and risk. The rovers’ designs share six wheels, a robotic arm and a similarly sized body called the warm electronics bot (WEB) that protects their “internal organs.” Perseverance, like its predecessor, is powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), which uses heat from the natural decay of plutonium-238 to generate electricity.
Perseverance’s design may be based on Curiosity, but its diverging goal of seeking signs of ancient life necessitated different scientific instruments. The rover’s seven instruments, capable of gathering scientific data in ways never before thought possible, are:
- Mastcam-Z: The main eyes of the Mars rover, this mast-mounted camera can take high-definition video, panoramic color and 3D images of the surface of Mars.
- SuperCam: Using a camera, laser and spectrometers, SuperCam can identify the chemical composition of targets the size of a pencil tip from 20 feet away.
- Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL): PIXL will use an X-ray spectrometer to map the elemental composition of surface materials. Its ability to see details the size of a grain of salt will help scientists search for signs of life on Mars.
- Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC): The first ultraviolet (UV) Raman spectrometer on Mars, SHERLOC will detect carbon-based chemicals altered by watery environments from its place on the rover’s robotic arm.
- Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE): Like a tree, MOXIE will convert carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere to oxygen. This technology could one day help astronauts make liquid oxygen propellant for return trips to Earth.
- Mars Environment Dynamics Analyzer (MEDIA): The aptly named MEDIA is a set of sensors that provide information on the Martian atmosphere, including wind speed, temperature, humidity and dust size.
- Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX): A ground-penetrating radar, RIMFAX will be the first rover instrument to ever reveal the geologic structure beneath the Martian surface.
On April 19, 2021, the Ingenuity Mars helicopter became the first aircraft to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet. Perseverance chronicled the historic flight on camera. The solar-powered helicopter may have only flown for 30 seconds, but it was cause for celebration. Engineers, who had been working on the project for six years, first approached the idea of flying a drone on mars by asking themselves, “Is it even possible?” Helicopter blades would have to somehow produce lift in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere, which is comparable to Earth at 100,000 feet.
The answer came in the form of helicopter blades made from a Styrofoam-like material coated with carbon fiber. Extremely lightweight, the blades helped Ingenuity remain under four pounds — crucial for fitting inside Perseverance — and achieve lift. “We will take a moment to celebrate our success and then take a cue from [the Wright brothers] regarding what to do next,” said Ingenuity Project Manager MiMi Aung. “History shows they got back to work … and so will we.”
Back to Work
The Perseverance rover spends its Martian days collecting rock core samples on the floor of the Jezero crater. For at least one Mars year, or about 687 Earth days, it will gather and store over 30 selected samples using a strategy known as depot caching. One day, a future mission to Mars could pick up these samples and ferry them back to Earth for analysis. Until then, it’s back to work for the diverse team of scientists, technologists and engineers at NASA’s JPL.
Every engineer has encountered their own set of challenges, even if they’ve never had to design a product capable of functioning on a distant planet. At some point, every engineer has considered a project and wondered, “Is it even possible?” Answering such a question requires up-to-date knowledge of technologies, a mindset for teamwork and a penchant for out-of-the-box thinking. Engineers at The University of Texas at Austin can acquire these skills and more in one of two 100% online engineering programs: the Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and the Mechanical Engineering Controls Graduate Certificate.
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