NASA’s Perseverance set to pay off as smart rover reaches Mars
Touching down on Mars later this week, in search of previous life, NASA’s Perseverance rover is equipped with its own helicopter for a bird’s-eye view of the red planet.
The fourth rock from the Sun doesn’t surrender its secrets easily, and many missions have been lost since the Soviets’ Mars 2 crashed in 1971. Mars 3 failed a few days later, after only a few minutes on the surface.
Mars’ thin atmosphere makes a safe touchdown notoriously difficult, with the treacherous descent dubbed the “seven minutes of terror”.
After hitting the atmosphere at 86,000 km/h on Friday morning, Perseverance will deploy a parachute before firing up a rocket-powered sky crane to gently lower the one-tonne rover to the bottom of the Jezero Crater.
Rich in clays, the crater may have once contained liquid water. Along with searching for signs of previous life, Perseverance will prepare samples to be returned to Earth by future missions.
All things going well after its seven-month journey, Perseverance will be the third mission to arrive at Mars this month; joining the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe studying Martian weather patterns and China’s Tianwen-1 mission which consists of an orbiter, lander and rover.
Perseverance can cover more ground than previous NASA rovers because it doesn’t need to constantly stop and wait for instructions from Earth, says Issa Nesnas, principal technologist and supervisor of the Robotic Mobility group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“The quest to build autonomous robots has progressed slowly, partly due to limited computational power considering that flight computers are designed for challenging radiation and thermal environments,” Nesnas says.
“Finally with this mission Perseverance has the ability to do what we call ‘thinking while driving’, with improved onboard computing able to process the cameras’ high-resolution, stereoscopic imagery to generate a 3D map of the terrain.”
Looking forward, Nesnas says autonomy and “extreme terrain mobility” will be key to exploring the solar system, allowing robots to access more interesting areas such as crater walls, cliff faces and lava tubes.
As part of this push to explore further than ever before, Perseverance carries a fully autonomous “Ingenuity” helicopter which will fly short missions to scope out the terrain.
With twin counter-rotating propellers to cope with the thin atmosphere, Ingenuity is a key step toward using flying for exploration, such as NASA’s Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon of Titan which launches in 2026.
“Of course, flying on Mars brings a whole new set of challenges,” Nesnas says.
“If the rover is unsure of how to proceed it can stay still and call home, but a helicopter in the air doesn’t have that luxury so greater autonomy becomes key; when you’re millions of miles from home, you need to be able to think on the fly.”