NASA’s latest Mars resident, Perseverance, prepares to explore the Octavia E. Butler Landing Site.
After an amazing, pinpoint sky-hook landing on February 18th, NASA’s Perseverance rover is starting to flex its nuclear-fueled, mechanical “muscles” as it prepares to explore its new home in Jezero Crater on Mars.
NASA held a press conference on March 5th listing the accomplishments of Perseverance thus far and giving us a preview for what’s next.
The one ton rover rotated its wheels this week and performed a 6.5-meter (21-foot) roll-and-turn drive, using the hazard avoidance cameras to snap images of the tire tracks. Commissioning also continued for onboard instruments, including test movement for the mechanical arm on Sol 12. Wind sensors on the main mast were also deployed.
A quick test of my steering, and things are looking good as I get ready to roll. My team and I are keen to get moving. One step at a time. pic.twitter.com/XSYfT158AQ
— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) March 5, 2021
“Perseverance has been doing an exceptional job during the first two weeks on the Red Planet,” says senior systems engineer Robert Hogg (NASA's JPL). “One of the great things about these sorts of missions are things that happen for the very first time, every day.”
Already, the team has released the first audio sounds from another planet, made the first short drive for the rover, taken the first panorama of the site, and released a slew of raw images, all available online with more to come.
“Our first drive went incredibly well,” says Anais Zarifian (NASA's JPL). “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see wheel tracks, and I’ve seen a lot of them . . . This was just a huge milestone for the mission.”
The JPL team also announced that the Perseverance landing site will now be known as Octavia E. Butler Landing, in honor of the acclaimed science fiction writer. Butler won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and was the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
“Butler’s pioneering work explored themes of race, gender, equality, and humanity, centering on the experiences of black women at a time when such voices were largely absent from science fiction,” says Katie Stack Morgan (NASA's JPL). “Butler’s protagonists embodied determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges.”
Now, Perseverance will take a short drive to a flat and level site where it will deploy the Mars Ingenuity Helicopter in the coming weeks. Ingenuity is currently mounted on the underside of the rover.
Researchers are looking for the best path to get to the delta at the entrance of Jezero Crater and Neretva Vallis. Images taken during descent and by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are serving as a guide.
The nominal mission for Perseverance is set at one Mars year (687 Earth days), but NASA rovers have a habit of lasting well past warranty.
Perseverance is designed specifically to look for signs of past life on Mars as it explores the old inflow delta near its landing site. The panorama around Perseverance shows abundant evidence of past geologic action, with lots of “Swiss-cheese”-looking rocks, a tantalizing suggestion of erosion from water. The region has the look of an ancient mud flow now frozen in time, juxtaposed against distant, steep-sided cliffs.
Perseverance will be digging its wheels into fresh Martian regolith again soon. Although all of the surrounding sand is a bit concerning to engineers, Perseverance’s aluminum wheels are slightly thicker and use a different tread pattern than Curiosity did, so they should hold up better.
Perseverance can drive about 200 meters a day. Although its rocker-bogie suspension system traces back to NASA’s first rover (Sojourner, which landed in 1997), the rover carries lots of upgrades. “Thanks to improvements on our auto-navigation software and our new cameras, we can drive five times faster than Curiosity, and that’s largely due to the Remote Compute Elements, which off-load the burden of image processing from the rover’s main computer, enabling us to ‘think while driving,’” says Zarifian. “In other words, Perseverance can ‘walk and chew gum’ at the same time.”
Another main objective for Perseverance is to cache samples for a future sample-return mission. NASA also recently awarded an $84.5 million dollar contract to develop the Mars Ascent Propulsion System (MAPS) for the future Mars Ascent Vehicle to the Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation. This is a crucial part of the joint NASA and European Space Agency mission that will eventually bring samples collected by Perseverance back to Earth.
The push for a sample return also seemed to get an informal approval from the current administration during a bipartisan meeting in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, when President Biden remarked to “...wait ‘til you see what comes home from Mars,” while showing off an Apollo era Moon rock.
Perseverance has lots of work ahead of it, as the rover prepares to explore its fascinating new home on Mars.