Mars 2020 Development Status
Mars 2020 Development Status
• July 22, 2020: NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission cleared its Flight Readiness Review Wednesday, an important milestone on its way to the launch pad. The meeting was an opportunity for the Mars 2020 team and launch vehicle provider United Launch Alliance to report on the readiness of the spacecraft, along with the Atlas V rocket, flight and ground hardware, software, personnel, and procedures. The daily launch window on Thursday July 30 opens at 7:50 a.m. EDT. 1)
- "Our deepest thanks go to the many teams who have worked so hard to get Perseverance ready to fly during these challenging times," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "This mission is emblematic of our nation's spirit of meeting problems head-on and finding solutions together. The incredible science Perseverance will enable and the bold human missions it will help make possible are going to be inspirations for us all."
- "We're pleased to be passing another milestone with the completion of the Flight Readiness Review," said Matt Wallace, deputy project manager for the mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. "But we'll keep our heads down through the final prelaunch activities and the opening of the launch window next week, until we're certain this spacecraft is safely on its way. Mars is a tough customer, and we don't take anything for granted."
• July 14, 2020: When NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida later this summer, an innovative experiment will ride along: the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Ingenuity may weigh only about 4 pounds (1.8 kg), but it has some outsize ambitions. 2)
- "The Wright Brothers showed that powered flight in Earth's atmosphere was possible, using an experimental aircraft," said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity's chief pilot at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "With Ingenuity, we're trying to do the same for Mars."
- Here are six things you should know about the first helicopter going to another planet:
1) Ingenuity is a flight test (Figure 4).
- Ingenuity is what is known as a technology demonstration - a project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time, with limited scope. Previous groundbreaking technology demonstrations include the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner and the tiny Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats that flew by Mars in 2018.
- Ingenuity features four specially made carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm - many times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth. It also has innovative solar cells, batteries, and other components. Ingenuity doesn't carry science instruments and is a separate experiment from the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.
2) Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet.
- What makes it hard for a helicopter to fly on Mars? For one thing, Mars' thin atmosphere makes it difficult to achieve enough lift. Because the Mars atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth's, Ingenuity has to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity's mass on Earth.
- It can also be bone-chillingly cold at Jezero Crater, where Perseverance will land with Ingenuity attached to its belly in February 2021. Nights there dip down to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). While Ingenuity's team on Earth has tested the helicopter at Martian temperatures and believes it should work on Mars as intended, the cold will push the design limits of many of Ingenuity's parts.
Figure 1: NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will make history's first attempt at powered flight on another planet next spring. It is riding with the agency's next mission to Mars (the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover) as it launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station later this summer. Perseverance, with Ingenuity attached to its belly, will land on Mars February 18, 2021 (video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
- In addition, flight controllers at JPL won't be able to control the helicopter with a joystick. Communication delays are an inherent part of working with spacecraft across interplanetary distances. Commands will need to be sent well in advance, with engineering data coming back from the spacecraft long after each flight takes place. In the meantime, Ingenuity will have a lot of autonomy to make its own decisions about how to fly to a waypoint and keep itself warm.
3) Ingenuity is a fitting name for a robot that is the result of extreme creativity.
- High school student Vaneeza Rupani of Northport, Alabama, originally submitted the name Ingenuity for the Mars 2020 rover, before it was named Perseverance, but NASA officials recognized the submission as a terrific name for the helicopter, given how much creative thinking the team employed to get the mission off the ground.
- "The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration," Rupani wrote. "Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things."
4) Ingenuity has already demonstrated feats of engineering.
- In careful steps from 2014 to 2019, engineers at JPL demonstrated that it was possible to build an aircraft that was lightweight, able to generate enough lift in Mars' thin atmosphere, and capable of surviving in a Mars-like environment. They tested progressively more advanced models in special space simulators at JPL. In January 2019, the actual helicopter that is riding with Perseverance to the Red Planet passed its final flight evaluation. Failing any one of these milestones would've grounded the experiment.
5) The Ingenuity team will count success one step at a time.
- Given the firsts Ingenuity is trying to accomplish, the team has a long list of milestones they'll need to pass before the helicopter can take off and land in the spring of 2021. The team will celebrate each time they meet one. The milestones include:
a) Surviving the launch from Cape Canaveral, the cruise to Mars, and landing on the Red Planet
b) Safely deploying to the surface from Perseverance's belly
c) Autonomously keeping warm through the intensely cold Martian nights
d) Autonomously charging itself with its solar panel.
- And then Ingenuity will make its first flight attempt. If the helicopter succeeds in that first flight, the Ingenuity team will attempt up to four other test flights within a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) window.
6) If Ingenuity succeeds, future Mars exploration could include an ambitious aerial dimension.
- Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars. They could offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground, provide high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans, and enable access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach.
Figure 2: When NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attempts its first test flight on the Red Planet, the agency's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will be close by, as seen in this artist's concept (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
• May 1, 2020: When it launches this summer, NASA's Perseverance rover will have the most advanced pair of "eyes" ever sent to the Red Planet's surface: Its Mastcam-Z instrument packs a next-gen zoom capability that will help the mission make 3D imagery more easily. Rover operators, who carefully plan out each driving route and each movement of a rover's robotic arm, view these stereo images through 3D goggles to see the contours of the landscape. 3)
- Located on Perseverance's "head," Mastcam-Z (the Z stands for "zoom") is a more advanced version of Mastcam, which NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has relied on to produce gorgeous panoramas of the Martian landscape. But it does more than that, and so will Mastcam-Z: Along with producing images that enable the public to follow the rover's daily discoveries, the cameras provide key data to help engineers navigate and scientists choose interesting rocks to study. The difference is that Curiosity's Mastcam can't zoom.
Figure 3: A close-up of the head of Perseverance Rover's remote sensing mast. The mast head contains the SuperCam instrument (its lens is in the large circular opening). In the gray boxes beneath mast head are the two Mastcam-Z imagers. On the exterior sides of those imagers are the rover's two navigation cameras (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
• April 30, 2020: Destined to become the first aircraft to attempt powered flight on another planet, NASA's Mars Helicopter officially has received a new name: Ingenuity. 4)
- Vaneeza Rupani, a junior at Tuscaloosa County High School in Northport, Alabama, came up with the name and the motivation behind it during NASA's "Name the Rover" essay contest.
Figure 4: Vaneeza Rupani (inset), a junior at Tuscaloosa County High School in Northport, Alabama, came up with the name Ingenuity for NASA's Mars Helicopter (an artist's impression of which is seen here) and the motivation behind it during NASA's "Name the Rover" essay contest (image credit: NASA/JPL)
- "The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration," Rupani wrote in her contest submission. "Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things, and it allows us to expand our horizons to the edges of the universe."
- Rupani's was among 28,000 essays submitted to NASA by K-12 students from every U.S. state and territory recommending names for the the next Mars rover. In March, the agency announced that seventh-grader Alexander Mather's essay earned him the honor of naming the rover Perseverance. But with so many good essays, it seemed fitting to also choose a name for the helicopter that will accompany the rover to Mars.
- So NASA officials went back to the submitted essays to choose a name for the helicopter. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, made the choice for the rover's name, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine chose the name for the helicopter.
• March 5, 2020: NASA's next Mars rover has a new name - Perseverance. NASA chose seventh-grader from Virginia as winner of the agency's "Name the Rover" essay contest. Alexander Mather's entry for "Perseverance" was voted tops among 28,000 entries. 5)
- The name was announced Thursday by Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, during a celebration at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. Zurbuchen was at the school to congratulate seventh grader Alexander Mather, who submitted the winning entry to the agency's "Name the Rover" essay contest, which received 28,000 entries from K-12 students from every U.S. state and territory.
- "Alex's entry captured the spirit of exploration," said Zurbuchen. "Like every exploration mission before, our rover is going to face challenges, and it's going to make amazing discoveries. It's already surmounted many obstacles to get us to the point where we are today - processing for launch. Alex and his classmates are the Artemis Generation, and they're going to be taking the next steps into space that lead to Mars. That inspiring work will always require perseverance. We can't wait to see that nameplate on Mars."
• February 12, 2020: NASA's next Mars rover has arrived in Florida to begin final preparations for its launch to the Red Planet this July. Two Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo planes carrying the Mars 2020 rover as well as the cruise stage, descent stage and Mars Helicopter touched down at NASA's Kennedy Space Center at about 3 p.m. EST (12 p.m. PST) today, completing a 2,300 mile (3,700 km) trip that began yesterday at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. 6)
- "Our rover has left the only home it has ever known," said John McNamee, Mars 2020 project manager. "The 2020 family here at JPL is a little sad to see it go, but we're even more proud knowing that the next time our rover takes to the skies, it will be headed to Mars."
- Assembly, test and launch operations for Mars 2020 began in January 2018. The first piece of hardware that would become part of the rover arrived on the clean room floor of JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility's High Bay 1 a few months later.
- The rover's aeroshell - its protective covering for the trip to the Red Planet - arrived at Kennedy this past December. Early on Feb. 11, the rover, cruise stage, descent stage and mission support equipment headed in four police-escorted trucks to the U.S. Air Force's March Air Reserve Base, where they were loaded aboard the two waiting C-17s.
- Within hours of arriving at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center, the 11 pallets of Mars 2020 spacecraft will be transported to the same spacecraft processing facility that in 2011 handled NASA's Curiosity rover, which is currently exploring Mars' Gale Crater. Later this week, the Mars 2020 assembly, test and launch operations team will begin testing the components to assess their health following the cross-country flight.
- After months of final assembly and additional testing, Mars 2020 should be enclosed in its aeroshell for the final time in late June. It will be delivered to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 41 to be integrated with the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will hurl it toward Jezero Crater in early July.
- Mars 2020 will collect and store rock and soil samples in sealed tubes and will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet's climate and geology, and pave the way for human exploration. Subsequent missions, currently in the planning stages, will return to Jezero Crater, gather the samples collected by Mars 2020 and return them to Earth for the sort of in-depth study that only a full-size lab can provide.
- JPL is building and will manage operations of the Mars 2020 rover for NASA. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.
Figure 5: On Feb. 11, 2020, Mars 2020 Assembly, Test and Launch Operations Manager David Gruel watched as members of his team loaded NASA's next Mars rover onto an Air Force C-17 at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California. The rover was flown to Cape Canaveral, Florida, in preparation for its July launch (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
• December 18, 2019: NASA's next Mars rover has passed its first driving test. A preliminary assessment of its activities on Dec. 17, 2019, found that the rover checked all the necessary boxes as it rolled forward and backward and pirouetted in a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The next time the Mars 2020 rover drives, it will be rolling over Martian soil. 7)
Figure 6: On Dec. 17, 2019, engineers took NASA's next Mars rover for its first spin. The test took place in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. This was the first drive test for the new rover, which will move to Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the beginning of next year to prepare for its launch to Mars in the summer. Engineers are checking that all the systems are working together properly, the rover can operate under its own weight, and the rover can demonstrate many of its autonomous navigation functions. The launch window for Mars 2020 opens on July 17, 2020. The rover will land at Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021 (video credit: NASA/JPL)
- Mars 2020 is designed to make more driving decisions for itself than any previous rover. It is equipped with higher-resolution, wide-field-of-view color navigation cameras, an extra computer "brain" for processing images and making maps, and more sophisticated auto-navigation software. It also has wheels that have been redesigned for added durability.
- All these upgrades allow the rover to average about 650 feet (200 meters) per Martian day. To put that into perspective, the longest drive in a single Martian day was 702 feet (214 meters), a record set by NASA's Opportunity rover. Mars 2020 is designed to average the current planetwide record drive distance.
• December 16, 2019: The capsule-shaped aeroshell that will protect NASA's Mars 2020 rover was delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida. yesterday. Built by Lockheed Martin, the aeroshell will encapsulate and protect the Mars 2020 rover during its deep space cruise to Mars, and from the intense heat as the entry system descends through the Martian atmosphere to the surface of Mars. 8)
Figure 7: The backshell and heat shield were transported from Lockheed Martin's Waterton facility in Littleton, Colorado where they were built, to nearby Buckley Air Force Base. They were then loaded onto an Air Force transport plane and flown to NASA's Kennedy Space Center (image credit: Lockheed Martin)
- Because of the large mass and unique entry trajectory profile that could create external temperatures up to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit (2,093ºC) , the heat shield uses a tiled Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) thermal protection system instead of the Mars heritage Super Lightweight Ablator (SLA) 561V. This will only be the second time PICA has flown on a Mars mission.
- "Even though we have the experience of building the nearly identical aeroshell for the Curiosity Rover, the almost 15-foot diameter composite structure was just as big a challenge to build and test 10 years later," said Neil Tice, Mars 2020 aeroshell program manager at Lockheed Martin Space. "We've built every Mars aeroshell entry system for NASA of its 40 years of exploring Mars, so we pulled from that experience to build this important system."
- Along with the Curiosity mission, this is the largest aeroshell/heat shield ever built for a planetary mission at 4.5 meters (nearly 15 feet) in diameter. In contrast, the aeroshell/heat shield of the InSight lander measured 8.6 feet and Apollo capsule heat shields measured just less than 13 feet.
- The backshell and heat shield were transported from Lockheed Martin's Waterton facility in Littleton, Colorado where they were built, to nearby Buckley Air Force Base. They were then loaded onto an Air Force transport plane and flown to NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
- Recently, Lockheed Martin integrated the MSL Entry Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI2) onto the heat shield and backshell. Provided by NASA's Langley and Ames Research Centers, MEDLI2 will collect temperature and pressure data during the spacecraft's descent through the Martian atmosphere.
- The Mars 2020 rover is in testing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California., which manages the Mars 2020 project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The mission will launch in July 2020 and land on Mars in February 2021 at the Jezero Crater.
• November 20, 2019: Fifty years ago today, during their second moonwalk, Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr. and Alan Bean became the first humans to reach out and touch a spacecraft that had previously landed on another celestial body. NASA's 1969 Apollo 12 Moon mission and the upcoming Mars 2020 mission to the Red Planet may be separated by half a century and targets that are 100 million miles apart, but they share several mission goals unique in the annals of space exploration. 9)
- "We on the Mars 2020 project feel a special kinship with the crew of Apollo 12," said John McNamee, Mars 2020 project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "They achieved the first precision landing, deployed the most advanced suite of science instruments of the time, and were the first to interact with another spacecraft that put down on another world. That's all part of the Mars 2020 playbook as well."
- NASA needed Apollo 12 to prove a precision landing was possible because future Apollo missions would target locations in the lunar highlands, where mountains, massive craters, boulder fields and rilles could ruin their day if the lunar modules strayed from their prescribed landing path. And while the previous mission, Apollo 11, was a monumental success, it overshot its intended landing site in the Sea of Tranquility by about 6 km.
- To demonstrate a precision landing, Apollo 12 mission planners could have chosen just about anywhere on the nearside of the Moon by targeting any of literally millions of known geologic features. In the end, they chose for Pete and Al a relatively nondescript crater in the Ocean of Storms because JPL had plunked down a spacecraft there two-and-a-half years earlier.
- "When Pete and Al put the lunar module Intrepid down within about 160 meters of Surveyor 3, it gave NASA the confidence to later send Apollo 15 to Hadley Rille, Apollo 16 to go to the Descartes Highlands and Apollo 17 to land at Taurus Littrow," said McNamee. "We also have to be precise with our landing on Mars - not only to pave the way for future precision landings on the Red Planet for both robotic and human-crewed missions, but also because Mars 2020's scientifically appealing landing site at Jezero Crater has all sorts of cliffsides, sand dunes, boulders and craters that can adversely affect us during landing."
- Mars 2020 will be history's first planetary mission to include terrain relative navigation, a computerized autopilot that utilizes optical imagers and computers to help Mars 2020 avoid landing hazards and make the most accurate landing on a planetary body in history.
Sweet Suite Science
- There are other similarities. During their first moonwalk, Conrad and Bean deployed the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments package (ALSEP). Powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, the five science instruments (seismometer, atmospheric sensor, solar wind spectrometer, lunar dust collector and magnetic field sensor) were the most advanced ever to be carried to another celestial body, and they sent back groundbreaking data on the lunar environment from November 1969 to September 1977. When Mars 2020 alights at Jezero Crater, it also will be equipped with the most advanced science instruments ever to travel to another world.
- "The science instruments we carry benefit not only from advances in technology, but the hard lessons learned by those missions of exploration, including Apollo, that preceded us," said Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020 from Caltech in Pasadena. "Our seven state-of-the-art science tools will help us acquire the most information possible about Martian geology, atmosphere, environmental conditions, and potential biosignatures, giving us insight into the Red Planet like never before."
Figure 8: Left: Apollo 12 astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr. stands beside NASA's Surveyor 3 spacecraft; the lunar module Intrepid can be seen in the distance. Apollo 12 landed on the Moon's Ocean of Storms on Nov. 20, 1969. Right: Mars 2020 rover, seen here in an artist's concept, will make history's most accurate landing on a planetary body when it lands at Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021 (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Return to Sender
- During their second moonwalk, Conrad and Bean reached the Surveyor 3 lander - one of the robotic missions that explored the Moon in advance of astronauts. They not only collected images and samples of the lunar surface surrounding the spacecraft, but cut, sawed and hacked parts off the three-legged spacecraft, including Surveyor's TV camera and its surface-soil sampling scoop.
- "NASA wanted to see what happened to materials that were exposed to the lunar environment for an extended period," said McNamee. "To this day, the samples of Surveyor 3, which endured 31 months at the Ocean of Storms, are our best and only demonstrations of the natural processes that can affect spacecraft components left on the Moon."
- One of Mars 2020's major mission goals is to seek signs of past microscopic life, collecting the most compelling rock core and Martian dust samples. Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA, would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis. To help engineers design spacesuits to shield astronauts from the elements, NASA is sending five samples of spacesuit material along with one of Mars 2020's science instruments, called Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC). A piece of an astronaut's helmet and four kinds of fabric are mounted on the calibration target for this instrument. Scientists will use SHERLOC, as well as a camera that photographs visible light, to study how the materials degrade in ultraviolet radiation. It will mark the first time spacesuit material has been sent to Mars for testing and will provide a vital comparison for ongoing testing at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Robots First, Astronauts Later
- Just as NASA's Surveyor missions helped blaze a trail for Neil and Buzz on Apollo 11, Pete and Al on 12, as well as Al and Ed (Apollo 14), Dave and Jim (Apollo 15), John and Charlie (Apollo 16), and Gene and Harrison (Apollo 17), Mars 2020 is helping set the tone for future crewed missions to Mars.
- Mars 2020's landing system includes a suite of sensors that will document the descent to the surface in never-seen-before detail so that future robotic and crewed missions factor those details into their landings. When on the surface, the rover's MOXIE instrument is designed to demonstrate that converting Martian carbon dioxide to pure oxygen is possible, and RIMFAX could teach us how to use ground-penetrating radar so that future missions can use it to find sources of fresh water.
- "Isaac Newton once wrote, 'If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,'" said McNamee. "When Mars 2020 flies, it will allow us to see farther into the geologic history of the Red Planet than ever before - and that is happening because we too are standing on the shoulders of giants - giants like the crew of Apollo 12."
- The launch period for Mars 2020 opens on July 17, 2020. It will land at Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.
• November 15, 2019: As any geologist worth his or her salt will tell you, there are rocks, and then there are rocks. Next July, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are launching rovers to Mars that will search for signs of past microbial life, and to find them, the scientists with NASA's Mars 2020 mission and ESA's ExoMars 2020 will need to examine different kinds of rocks that lend compelling insights into the environment in which they were made - all from 100 million miles away. 10)
- "While we expect to find many significant rocks during both Mars 2020 and ExoMars 2020 missions, we also have to leave open the possibility we could find one or more very special rocks,the kind whose discovery would not only speak volumes about the history of Mars but contribute significantly to the discussion of life elsewhere in the universe," said Ken Farley, Mars 2020 project scientist at Caltech in Pasadena.
- Guided by Martin Van Kranendonk, director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales, members of the two missions' science teams went on an expedition to northwestern Australia's Pilbara region to analyze, discuss and debate stromatolites - structures preserved in rock that formed in water on early Earth and contain a fossilized record of ancient microbial life. Among the science teams' stops: a stromatolite cluster in a grouping of rock called the Dresser Formation that contains some of the oldest known fossilized records of life on our world.
- "Some 3.48 billion years ago, this area was home to a caldera, or collapsed volcano, filled with hot, bubbling seawater," said Van Kranendonk. "At the same time, this location was also home to structures called microbial mats - visible to the naked eye but composed of microscopic organisms. Today you would know them as simple pond scum, but back then they were the most complex lifeforms on Earth."
- Likely powered by photosynthesis, along with the heat and chemical energy in the caldera, these mats lived at the water's edge, secreting a mucous that would trap grains of sediment swirling around in the water. Over time, sheet after sheet of these microbes trapped sediment on top of previous layers. When the seawater receded and the pond scum dried up and disappeared millennia later, what remained was striking evidence of this co-evolution of geology and biology.
Figure 9: Could Mars ever have supported life? In the Australian Outback, scientists from NASA's upcoming Mars 2020 mission and their counterparts from the joint European-Russian ExoMars 2020 mission visited the oldest convincing evidence for life on Earth to prepare for their own searches for signs of ancient life on Mars. The field lesson in astrobiology in the Pilbara region is being applied in the near term by NASA, ESA and Roscosmos for mission planning, and will also pay dividends when both rovers begin to send back science data and imagery from the Red Planet (video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
- "A stromatolite is quite subtle to the untrained eye," said Van Kranendonk. "But once you know the details, you recognize that these wavy, wrinkly rocks have a structure different from that which can be explained by just geology."
Figure 10: Scientists from NASA's Mars 2020 and ESA's ExoMars 2020 projects study stromatolites, the oldest confirmed fossilized lifeforms on Earth, in the Pilbara region of North West Australia. The image was taken on Aug. 19, 2019 (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Past Life on Mars?
- Of course, the Outback isn't Mars, but what happened in the Dresser Formation a billion years ago and what happened on the Red Planet at roughly the same time share some eerie similarities.
- Between 3 billion and 4 billion years ago at the Mars 2020 landing site, Jezero Crater, a river flowed into a body of water the size of Lake Tahoe, depositing delta sediments packed with clay and carbonate minerals. The conditions were ideal for stromatolites to form on the shorelines, which is one key reason the rover team will be touching down there in February 2021. "It's hard to think of a better recipe for life to thrive - and for its record to be preserved - than the one we see at Jezero," said Ken Williford, deputy project scientist for Mars 2020 at JPL.
- If stromatolites ever existed in Jezero or at Oxia Planum, the ExoMars 2020 landing site, the teams need to know what to look for, hence this trip to the Outback. But that's not the only reason they came.
- "I organized this first joint Mars 2020-ExoMars 2020 science expedition so scientists from our two great missions could gain a new perspective on these one-of-a-kind stromatolites; a laboratory setting just can't provide the same context," said Mitch Schulte, Mars 2020 program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "That applies to the experience as a whole, too - the conversations, comparing of notes and planning for future exchanges that was done here in the Pilbara will go a long way to advance Mars science."
Two Missions, Two Rovers
- While the two missions both seek to find evidence of past life, each is approaching the challenge in its own way. Touching down about a week after Mars 2020, the ExoMars 2020 rover, otherwise known as the Rosalind Franklin, carries a core drill that on two or more occasions will bore almost 7 feet (2 meters) into the Martian crust. The rover will analyze the samples onsite with a sophisticated suite of scientific instruments.
- The coring mechanism on NASA's Mars 2020 rover drills shallower holes but is designed to collect more than 40 rock and soil core samples. There will be on-site analysis of rocks at the coring sites, and the samples themselves will be sealed in metal tubes that will ultimately be deposited by the rover at specific sites. Future missions could then retrieve those samples and return them to Earth for the sort of laboratory analysis that just isn't possible on Mars.
- "These two Mars missions will be revolutionary because they are complementary," said Teresa Fornaro, a science team member for the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer instrument aboard ExoMars 2020. "Two different rovers with two different sets of instruments, exploring at the same time two different landing sites. Some of the capabilities of Mars 2020 in characterizing the surface environment could help guide ExoMars 2020 on where to drill. Conversely, knowledge of the alteration of possible organics as a function of depth by ExoMars 2020 could help Mars 2020 select the most interesting surface samples to collect for future return to Earth."
- When the joint Mars 2020-ExoMars 2020 science Outback expedition concluded in late August, the science teams went their separate ways. But to those who honed their stromatolite-hunting skills in the Pilbara, the influence of the trip continues.
- "What is happening working out here in the field is also happening in the halls of NASA and ESA," said Schulte. "Finding evidence of life on another world, if it ever existed, will require tenacity and a whole lot of brainpower. If there is a stromatolite in the range of the rovers, I think we have a good chance of finding it ... and we'll find it together. This trip will have helped with that."
- The launch window for Mars 2020 opens on July 17, 2020. It will land at Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. The launch window for ExoMars 2020 opens July 25, 2020. It will land at Oxia Planum in March 2021.
• October 18, 2019: NASA released a report Friday with recommendations from the PPIRB (Planetary Protection Independent Review Board) the agency established in response to a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report and a recommendation from the NASA Advisory Council. 11)
- With NASA, international, and commercial entities planning bold missions to explore our solar system and return samples to Earth, the context for planetary protection is rapidly changing. NASA established the PPIRB to conduct a thorough review of the agency’s policies.
- Planetary protection establishes guidelines for missions to other solar system bodies so they are not harmfully contaminated for scientific purposes by Earth biology and Earth, in turn, is protected from harmful contamination from space.
- The board’s report assesses a rapidly changing environment where more samples from other solar system bodies will be returned to Earth, commercial and international entities are discussing new kinds of solar system missions, and NASA’s Artemis program is planning human missions to the Moon and eventually to Mars.
- The report discusses 34 findings, and 43 recommendations from the PPIRB, which was chaired by planetary scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute to address future NASA missions and proposed missions by other nations and the private sector that include Mars sample return, robotic missions to other bodies, eventual human missions to Mars, and the exploration of ocean worlds in the outer solar system.
- “The landscape for planetary protection is moving very fast. It’s exciting now that for the first time, many different players are able to contemplate missions of both commercial and scientific interest to bodies in our solar system,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “We want to be prepared in this new environment with thoughtful and practical policies that enable scientific discoveries and preserve the integrity of our planet and the places we’re visiting.”
- The PPIRB, comprised of a high-level team of 12 experts and stakeholders from science, engineering and industry, examined how to update planetary protection policies and procedures in light of current capabilities. Such guidelines have periodically been updated and inform exploration by spacefaring nations that have signed the Outer Space Treaty since the 1960s.
- “Planetary science and planetary protection techniques have both changed rapidly in recent years, and both will likely continue to evolve rapidly,” Stern said. “Planetary protection guidelines and practices need to be updated to reflect our new knowledge and new technologies, and the emergence of new entities planning missions across the solar system. There is global interest in this topic, and we also need to address how new players, for example in the commercial sector, can be integrated into planetary protection.”
- NASA plans to begin a dialog about the PPIRB report’s recommendations with stakeholders, and international and commercial partners to help build a new chapter for conducting planetary missions, and planetary protection policies and procedures.
• October 4, 2019: "Firing the pyrotechnic devices that held the rover and descent stage together and then doing the post-test inspection of the two vehicles was an all-day affair," said Ryan van Schilifgaarde, a support engineer for Mars 2020 assembly at JPL. "With this test behind us, the rover and descent stage go their separate ways for a while. Next time they are attached will be at the Cape next spring during final assembly." 12)
- Both the rover and descent stage will ship to Cape Canaveral, Florida, this winter. Before then there'll be a battery of tests for the Mars 2020 rover, including an evaluation of its computers and mechanical systems in Mars-like conditions. Called the Surface Thermal Test, it involves subjecting the car-size Mars vehicle to atmospheric pressures and temperatures similar to those it will encounter on the Red Planet.
- JPL is building and will manage operations of the Mars 2020 rover for NASA. The rover will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July 2020 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.
- When the rover lands at Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, it will be the first spacecraft in the history of planetary exploration with the ability to accurately retarget its point of touchdown during the landing sequence.
- Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA's Artemis lunar exploration plans will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028. We will use what we learn on the Moon to prepare to send astronauts to Mars.
- Interested K-12 students in U.S. public, private and home schools can enter the Mars 2020 Name the Rover essay contest. One grand prize winner will name the rover and be invited to see the spacecraft launch in July 2020 from Cape Canaveral.
Figure 11: In this picture from Sept. 28, 2019, engineers and technicians working on the Mars 2020 spacecraft at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, look on as a crane lifts the rocket-powered descent stage away from the rover after a test (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
• September 23, 2019: Today, a letter from NASA's director of Mars Exploration, James Watzin, was presented to the mayor of Jezero, Bosnia and Herzegovina, honoring the connection between the small Balkan town and Jezero Crater, the landing site for the Mars 2020 rover. U.S. Ambassador Eric Nelson delivered the letter to Mayor Snezana Ruzucic in the town, population 1,100. 13)
- "It takes an international team of experts to create and support a mission with the complexity and ambition of Mars 2020," said Watzin. "I am proud that we can now include the citizens of Jezero, Bosnia and Herzegovina, as honorary members of the 2020 team. Together, we will explore one of the most scientifically captivating as well as serene locations on Mars."
- The linkage between Mars and the municipality of Jezero began with a decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2007: That's when the organization gave the name Jezero Crater to a 45-kilometer-wide crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator.
- "The IAU choses to name craters with scientific significance after small towns and villages of the world," explained Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020 from Caltech in Pasadena, California.
- In November 2018, 11 years after Jezero Crater got its name, NASA designated Jezero Crater the landing site of Mars 2020.
- "I couldn't be happier with both our future home on Mars and the location it was named after," said Farley.
- Jezero township is situated on the Veliko Plivsko Lake entrance to the Pliva River. Like its Earthly namesake, the Red Planet's Jezero Crater was once home to a river-fed lake. Mars 2020 scientists believe this ancient river delta could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life from the water and sediments that flowed into the crater billions of years ago. The mission plans to take samples of the area, caching them in tubes that will be retrieved and returned to Earth in a future mission.
James Watzin elaborated in his letter to the people of Jezero:
- "The Mars Exploration Program at NASA would like to recognize your town for its connection to this upcoming mission, and we hope that you will follow the endeavors of the Mars 2020 rover as it makes this journey. The rover was designed to further our understanding of the possibilities for life beyond Earth and to advance new capabilities in exploration technology. Once returned to Earth, the samples from Jezero Crater will provide a wealth of information about Mars and our solar system for generations to come."
- Watzin is confident the thrill of exploration and discovery can extend the tens of millions of miles from an intriguing crater on Mars to a small community in Southeastern Europe. More than 300 citizens and students of Jezero and two adjacent municipalities, Jajce and Mrkonji Grad, shared their enthusiasm for the mission during the event with the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Army Civil Affairs team. Students from both schools performed a play, "We Are Going to Mars," and experimented with robots provided by the U.S. Embassy.
- "Part of NASA's mission is to inspire scientists, engineers and explorers," said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Jezero's connection with the Mars 2020 mission may very well inspire students in Jezero, and elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to pursue an education in the sciences."
- Mars 2020 will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July of 2020. It will land at the small Bosnian and Herzegovinian town's namesake, Jezero Crater, on Feb. 18, 2021.
Figure 12: On Sept. 23, 2019, Eric Nelson, the U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, presented a framed letter to the Snezana Ruzucic, mayor of the Balkan municipality of Jezero. The letter, from NASA's director of Mars Exploration, James Watzin, honored the connection between the small Balkan town and Jezero Crater the landing site of NASA's upcoming Mars 2020 mission. In this picture, Ruzucic snaps a selfie of the ambassador with local school children (image credit: US Embassy Sarajevo)
• August 28, 2019: Engineers attached NASA's Mars Helicopter, which will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet, to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover today in the High Bay 1 clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. 14)
- The twin-rotor, solar-powered helicopter was connected, along with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System, to a plate on the rover's belly that includes a cover to shield the helicopter from debris during entry, descent and landing. The helicopter will remain encapsulated after landing, deploying to the surface once a suitable area to conduct test flights is found at Jezero Crater, the rover's destination.
- The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. If the small craft encounters difficulties, the science-gathering of the Mars 2020 mission won't be impacted. If the helicopter does take flight as designed, future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations.
- "Our job is to prove that autonomous, controlled flight can be executed in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere," said JPL's MiMi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager. "Since our helicopter is designed as a flight test of experimental technology, it carries no science instruments. But if we prove powered flight on Mars can work, we look forward to the day when Mars helicopters can play an important role in future explorations of the Red Planet."
- Along with investigating difficult-to-reach destinations such as cliffs, caves and deep craters, they could carry small science instruments or act as scouts for human and robotic explorers. The agency intends to establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon through NASA's Artemis lunar exploration plans, using the Moon as a stepping stone to putting humans on Mars.
- "The Wright Brothers flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, but they built it in Dayton," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "The Mars Helicopter, destined to be the first aircraft to fly on another world, was built in Pasadena, California. Joined now to the 2020 rover, it is yet another example of how NASA's Artemis generation is expanding humanity's reach in our solar system."
- "With this joining of two great spacecraft, I can say definitively that all the pieces are in place for a historic mission of exploration," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA's headquarters in Washington. "Together, Mars 2020 and the Mars Helicopter will help define the future of science and exploration of the Red Planet for decades to come."
- The Mars 2020 rover, with the Mars Helicopter aboard, will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July 2020 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. When it lands at Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, the rover will be the first spacecraft in the history of planetary exploration with the ability to accurately retarget its point of touchdown during the landing sequence.
Figure 13: Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team attach a thermal film to the exterior of the flight model of the Mars Helicopter. The image was taken on Feb. 1, 2019 inside the Space Simulator, a 7.62-meter-wide vacuum chamber at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
• August 23, 2019: This week, scientists from NASA's upcoming Mars 2020 mission joined their counterparts from the joint European-Russian ExoMars 2020 mission in an expedition to the Australian Outback, one of the most remote, arid regions on the planet. Both teams came to hone their research techniques before their missions launch to the Red Planet next summer in search of signs of past life on Mars. 15)
- The researchers know that any proof of past life on Mars will more than likely be almost microscopic in size. That's where the Pilbara region of North West Australia comes in.
- "The Pilbara Outback is home to the oldest confirmed fossilized lifeforms on Earth, called stromatolites," said Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "If we can better understand how these fossils came to be here - and the nearby geological signposts that help point the way to them - we'll be that much more prepared when hunting for signs of life on Mars."
- The field trip was led by Martin Van Kranendonk, a professor of geology and astrobiology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
Figure 14: Scientists with NASA's Mars 2020 mission and the European-Russian ExoMars 2020 mission traveled to the Australian Outback to hone their research techniques before their missions launch to the Red Planet in the summer of 2020. The trip was designed to help them better understand how to search for signs of ancient life on Mars (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Figure 15: Scientists from NASA's Mars 2020 mission and the European Space Agency-Roscosmos ExoMars 2020 mission are in the Australian Outback to hone research techniques before their missions launch to the Red Planet in summer 2020. They are hoping to better understand how to search for signs of ancient life on Mars. The Pilbara region of North West Australia is home to "stromatolites," the oldest confirmed fossilized lifeforms on Earth (video credit: JPLraw, Published on Aug 23, 2019)
- "Just as the Apollo astronauts visited areas of geologic interest on Earth before they journeyed to the Moon, the scientists of Mars 2020 and ExoMars 2020 are doing their due diligence before their missions make the 160-million-plus-kilometer trip to the Red Planet," said Mitch Schulte, Mars 2020 program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Martin helped them by providing a thorough and thought-provoking look into the geologic features of the Pilbara."
- The first joint science trip for the Mars 2020 and ExoMars teams will conclude Aug. 24, when the scientists will pack up their field notes, fold up their tents and return to home. But the results from this astrobiology expedition will have positive, long-lasting ramifications in humanity's hunt for evidence that we are not alone in the universe.
- The launch window for Mars 2020 opens on July 17, 2020. It will land at Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. The launch window for ExoMars opens July 25, 2020. It will land on the Red Planet in March 2021.
• August 15, 2019: The bit carousel - a mechanism that will play a key role in the acquisition, containment and eventual return to Earth of humanity's first samples from another planet - has been incorporated into NASA's Mars 2020 rover. 16)
- "The bit carousel is at the heart of the sampling and caching subsystem," said Keith Rosette, Mars 2020 sample handling delivery manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "It contains all of the tools the coring drill uses to sample the Martian surface and is the gateway for the samples to move into the rover for assessment and processing."
- Looking somewhat like an extraterrestrial version of a 1960s slide projector, Mars 2020's bit carousel is home to nine drill bits that facilitate sample acquisition and surface analysis: two for abrading, one for regolith (rock and soil) and six for coring. The coring and regolith bits are used to place Martian samples in a clean sample collection tube, while the abrader bit is used to scrape the top layers of rocks to expose un-weathered surfaces for study.
- When the rover team is ready to drill, the carousel whirrs into action. If, for instance, the goal is to abrade, the carousel maneuvers the appropriate bit into position so that the drill at the end of the rover's robotic arm can extract it. Once the drilling's done, the bit goes back into the carousel.
- For core sampling, a sample tube is inserted inside the appropriate bit before the carousel moves the combination into position for the drill. Once the sample tube has been filled, the robotic arm returns the drill bit and tube to the carousel, where they wend their way to processing stations and storage.
Figure 16: The bit carousel, which lies at the heart of Sample Caching System of NASA's Mars 2020 mission, is attached to the front end of the rover in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility's High Bay 1 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The carousel contains all of the tools the coring drill uses to sample the Martian surface and is the gateway for the samples to move into the rover for assessment and processing (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).