The most sophisticated Mars rover ever built is on its way to the red planet. NASA's Perseverance blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, atop a rocket Thursday morning.
WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Ken Farley, a NASA project scientist, about the mission.
Farley: The Perseverance mission is a rover mission to Mars that has as its animating goal, seeking the signs of life on Mars. And in particular, looking into rocks that were deposited billions of years ago, when Mars surface was much more habitable than today to see if anything, anything was alive at that time on Mars.
Levulis: And what will the rover actually do once it does land, hopefully lands on Mars?
Farley: Hopefully lands? It's going to land one way or another, it's going to land in February. We will investigate the landing site, which is a former lake, it's the bed of a lake in a crater. And the rover will traverse through the rocks. They're looking for evidence in those rocks of habitable environments. And also looking for any kind of fossil remains that might be present what we call bio signatures. And while we're doing that, we will also collect samples in preparation for they're being returned to Earth for further analysis by a future mission. So that is what we call Mars sample return where the first step in the series of missions to execute Mars sample return.
Levulis: And Ken from what I understand, and it's incredible to say this, there is also going to be a helicopter sent up with the rover to explore Mars. How is that going to work and what will its role be?
Farley: Yeah, the helicopter is attached beneath the rover. When we land it is it is protected by a shield and shortly after we land we will drop the shield which prevents rocks from striking it during landing. We'll drop that shield and then drop the helicopter to the ground and the rover will drive away and allow the helicopter to execute a series of test flights. This is a technology demonstration which means that its goal is to assess whether it is possible to fly on Mars. And the big challenge here is that the atmospheric pressure on Mars is only about 1% of Earth's atmosphere is very thin. And so unlike a drone that you might buy in a hobby shop, this drone has a very large pair of blades are almost three feet long. And the goal of that will be to do a series of test flights that allow the engineers to assess what flight on Mars could look like.
Levulis: You mentioned that the rover will be looking for signs of previous life on Mars. So how might this mission then set the stage for humans being able to go to Mars?
Farley: Well, the helicopter is one good example of that. That's kind of technology that if it is demonstrated that it that it works on this mission, astronauts could use it to investigate landscapes that are too challenging for them to either hike across or drive across depending on what kind of mobility they have. The rover will also carry another technology demonstration that will assess the feasibility of converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen. And this would be very valuable for human exploration in that the astronauts would not have to bring with them all the oxygen they need to breathe, and more importantly, the oxygen they will need as part of the propellant mixture to for the rocket to get them back off of the surface. It's an example of kind of living off of the land. Perseverance will test that technology. And finally, the whole idea of Mars sample return allows a relatively low risk testing opportunity of building a rocket and flying a rocket off of another planet. It's a big risk for us, the scientists if we if the samples that that could be brought back to earth and You know, later in this decade, if they are lost on the turn, it will be a big loss for the science community but at least there's no loss of life involved. So this is a relatively low risk testing opportunity for that.
Levulis: Now, in the last few weeks, China has launched a Mars rover and a Japanese rocket earlier sent up United Arab Emirates orbiter to space, do those launches put more pressure on NASA to make sure Perseverance is a success?
Farley: We don't need any more pressure to make it to ensure that it's a success. But it is it is a fascinating thing that there are so many missions on the way to Mars right now. I'm very excited about that. From the science point of view, there'll be a big new international community involved in investigating Mars. And we expect that even the Europeans will arrive with the mission in about two years’ time. So there's a lot going on Mars these days.
Levulis: And can you mention the rovers is expected to land on Mars in February overall, what's the mission’s timeline?
Farley: Seven months to get to Mars. So we'll land on February 18. And the prime mission will last two Earth years, so in that time, we will explore the landing site in general crater. If we are fortunate enough to have a rover that is healthy, we are likely to rove out of the crater and explore the highlands around the crater.
Levulis: And how can people on earth follow this mission and learn more about it?
Farley: NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have a website that is on the Perseverance mission that is updated all the time. And one of the most interesting things you will see there after we arrive is all the images that overtakes which is a very large number. The rover has a large number of cameras. All of those images go straight onto the web. There's nothing in between so you can watch live in real time.