NASA Counts Down to Launch of New Mars Rover and Drone

Artist’s impression of NASA’s new Mars rover Perseverance, which will be launched July 30, 2020. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

(CN) — NASA is gearing up for humanity’s first round trip to Mars. But before the first human can set foot on the red planet, scientists will launch the Perseverance rover to study the planet’s surface and atmosphere.

Fifty-one years after astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program will launch its Perseverance rover and its companion drone helicopter Ingenuity on July 30. The pair will land on Mars sometime in early 2021 to study the early formation and evolution of the planet.

And before sending humans to Mars, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said astronauts will attempt to colonize Earth’s moon through the Artemis program. Artemis seeks to land the first woman on the Moon by 2024 and in essence will be a stepping stone to Mars.

“Right now, we’re doing these robotic missions to Mars, so that when our humans do go to Mars we know where to go, we know what to do and we have the absolute best locations picked out where we’re going to be able to maximize the utility of the science,” Bridenstine said during a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Space Foundation on Monday.

The rover will land in the large Jezero crater — believed to have once been flooded with water and now rich in clays — according to NASA leads who joined the virtual panel discussion ahead of the mission’s launch.

“Scientists have poured over every image of Mars we have, the Mars reconnaissance orbiter and characterization from the PRISM (Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer) instrument and others in terms of what is the best site on Mars that had ancient habitability, we believe had ancient habitability,” said NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Michael Watkins. “But also can preserve signs of that habitability.”

The crater has a river delta similar to ones seen on Earth which dried up about 3 billion years ago, said Watkins.

When Perseverance lands on Mars it will mark a series of firsts, including what NASA hopes is the first drone flight by Ingenuity, a drone-like vehicle that weighs roughly four pounds.

Artist’s impression of Ingenuity, a drone helicopter that will accompany NASA’s new Mars rover Perseverance. Both will be launched July 30. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Project lead MiMi Aung with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed by Caltech, says human beings have never flown a rotocraft on another planet.

“So, a really Wright brothers moment but on another planet,” said Aung.

A helicopter can serve as a scout for rovers and astronauts and reach places that are not accessible except by flying, said Aung, but the design process to ensure that such a vehicle can work in the Mars’ atmosphere will be a feat of engineering.

The planet’s atmosphere is thin, which requires Ingenuity to be very light and its rotors to spin very quickly in order to weather the red planet.

After getting the first flight, the team piloting Ingenuity will become bolder and travel farther and higher.

“The helicopter is about to be launched. It’s truly the high-risk, high-reward phase of our project,” said Aung. “Our algorithms and tests we have done on Earth and operating in situ and learning from how to operate the very first rotorcraft vehicle in space from Earth; all of that experiences will be feeding into future, much more capable rotorcraft that we envision and really add that aerial dimension to space exploration.”

The Perseverance rover — which weighs just under 2,300 pounds and is the size of a small car — will launch July 30 from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It will be able to collect and store rock and soil samples from the Martian surface that could one day be returned to Earth in future roundtrip missions.

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