On July 30, 2020, an Atlas rocket from the United Launch Alliance lifted off from Cape Canaveral on its seven-month journey to Mars. Its payload was the Perseverance Mars rover that at 1000 KG is the largest and heaviest rover to land on Mars to date.
Mars missions are difficult with a success rate of only 40% so far. On February 18 this year, Perseverance soft-landed in Jezero Crater with its automated safety systems choosing a level and boulder free spot. This complex operation has been developed from previous similar landings and it allowed for a precision touch-down in exactly the best place.
Now it is on the surface, lessons learned from the previous rovers will hopefully help to eliminate problems encountered with minor hardware failures in the past. The Perseverance rover will be nuclear-powered by using 4.8 kilograms of Plutonium 238 – this can supply 110 watts of electrical power continuously. The power will reduce slowly but will still operate for many decades and it could well be operational when the first humans land, possibly in 2026.
Searching for Ancient Life, Gathering Rocks and Soil, this rover contains multiple science experiments including an electrically powered oxygen generator called MOXIE, that converts the CO2 from the atmosphere into oxygen. This will be the same type of system that will be used by the first humans on Mars.
This small-scale setup will only provide 20 grams of oxygen per hour, but NASA and Elon Musk have plans to soft land on Mars a large empty tank including an oxygen converter with a capacity of 2KG per hour to fill the tank ready for the first astronauts when they land.
The Perseverance rover is also equipped with a powerful drill that has the capability to take 42 deep core samples and to leave them on the surface for a 2026 European Space Agency (ESA) mission that will return them to Earth for analysis.
The rover has a ground penetrating radar that could detect water up to 10 meters deep. Also, there are various high-definition cameras including a microphone so that we can see and hear the environment of Jezero Crater. This mission will test an autonomous drone called Ingenuity; this will fly for just 90 seconds as a proof of concept.
In 2027, NASA has proposed to send a similar but more capable quadcopter drone to Titan, the major Moon of the ringed planet Saturn. This device is called the Dragonfly mission and it will be nuclear-powered with the ability to fly many kilometres before landing to recharge its battery.
The Perseverance rover will be in constant communication with Earth by means of orbital satellites, but it is much more autonomous than previous rovers by using AI Tech.
All this is paving the way for an eventual human colonization of the red planet, possibly starting in 2026. Elon Musk with his space X Starship is planning to send automatic cargo ships to Mars by 2022 to prepare the landing site for the first humans. He plans for an independent established Mars base by 2050.
By Clive Jackson
Clive Jackson is the director of the Camera Obscura attraction (next to the Castle in Tavira), specialising in education and public outreach.
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