Feb 22, 2021
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“What is he looking for in a distant country”

Probably, from the surface of Mars it looked like a very beautiful sight. Without going into orbit, immediately after the flight, the spacecraft sent by the Earth entered the rarefied atmosphere of the Red Planet. Like a bright fireball, it swept across the pitch-black Martian sky full of stars. Slowing down from the second space speed, the device began its “seven minutes of horror”, as the process of landing in NASA is poetically called. The heat shield was red-hot and was thrown back, the braking parachute worked. Then a landing platform flew out of the womb of the interplanetary probe, carefully put the rover on the surface, shot off the cables holding it, and retired to a safe distance.

Perseverance (Perseverance) is the fifth American rover to operate on the planet’s surface. Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity have already landed and worked out before it. The last one, launched in 2011, continues its work to this day. His wheels are badly damaged, some of his tools have failed, but he stubbornly continues to move and has traveled more than 23 km over the years. “Perseverance” was created in many respects taking into account the experience gained during its creation and use.

The new rover is heavier by almost a centner and weighs almost as a small car – 1025 kg. It has stronger aluminum wheels. Alas, this is one of the weakest points of the rovers: due to the lack of rain and erosion, the surface of the Red Planet is covered with sharp stones, gradually destroying the strong aluminum alloy.

Like its predecessor, “Perseverance” uses a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) as a battery. It is based on a thick aluminum body with plutonium-238 inside. The radioactive isotope gradually decays, releasing heat, which is converted into electricity. Part of the heat goes to heating the rover’s instruments. The average temperature of Mars at the surface is -40 degrees Celsius, but it can drop to -125 degrees. The minimum term of operation of the RTG is 14 years, during this time the allocated power will decrease by only 10%.

Things to do on Mars

NASA experts want to use the rover to solve four problems. The first two are associated with the search for biosignatures and possible sites for the development of microbial life. Biosignatures are a general name for possible manifestations of life activity in the present or past. It could be a gas emitted by bacteria, fossils, or amino acids indicating that there was life in this place at one time.

To increase the chance of finding biosignatures, the landing site of the Perseverance rover was specially selected. It landed at Jezero Crater in the west of the Isis Plain, near the eastern edge of Greater Sirte. Judging by the photographs, this crater was once filled with water, you can even distinguish the dried-up beds of the rivers that existed there. In the places of their confluence there are large deposits of clay deposits, which Perseverance will explore. If water was present in this place, then there is a great chance that life existed there, at least the simplest. In addition, the crater is very convenient for landing; the bottom of the dried up Martian lake is a flat and level surface.

To search for life, three of the seven instruments installed on the rover will be used. It is a planetary instrument for X-ray lithochemistry (PIXL), an ultraviolet Raman spectrometer (SHERLOC) and SuperCam, a set of two lasers and four spectrometers for remotely searching for biosignatures and assessing the possibility of the existence of Martian life in the past.

All three devices are different types of spectrometers and, to put it simply, they work like this. Soil samples fall into the camera or under the “lens”, after which they are irradiated – in one case with X-rays, and in the other – with ultraviolet or laser. Then microelectronics determines the chemical composition of the soil. It is the results of these devices that will help scientists say whether life existed on Mars or whether it exists there right now.

“We have such devices”

The rover has another very interesting task – preparation for the landing of a man on Mars. To do this, Perseverance is equipped with an instrument called the Mars Research Oxygen Experiment (MOXIE). It will test the feasibility of using technology to produce oxygen (O2) from carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Martian atmosphere. If all goes well, the facility will produce 22 grams of oxygen per hour for 50 Martian days and will become the prototype of a large unit for the first Martian manned mission.

For the first time in history, a reconnaissance helicopter “Ingenuity” (“Ingenuity”) weighing 1.8 kg was installed on a Martian rover. It has two coaxial propellers with a diameter of 1.2 m, capable of rotating at 2400 rpm. According to the estimates of the designers, this will allow him to fly even in the rarefied atmosphere of Mars. It is assumed that the “rover” will be engaged in near-field reconnaissance to determine the best route for the rover.

While it is folded under the bottom of the rover and will be activated soon. The drone has its own solar-powered battery. It is assumed that it will be activated on the 30th day of operation of the rover, after the batteries are fully charged. Even if the Ingenuity makes just one flight, it will be a major breakthrough – while over other planets, unmanned reconnaissance drones hovered only in science fiction.

Separately, it is worth mentioning the many different cameras that the rover is equipped with. They will be used not only for orientation, but also for photographing the surrounding landscapes. In addition, two microphones are installed on board – soon Perseverance will transmit the sounds of Mars to Earth for the first time in history.

Bring back my soil

The Perseverance rover will begin a large, lengthy and one and very expensive space mission to deliver samples of Martian soil to Earth. If all goes well, it will last 10 years and end in 2031. The program is led by the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), which includes experts from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

The task of “Perseverance” is to collect soil samples along the route and, with the help of its two-meter robotic arm, place them in sealed test tubes and put them in a special niche on the body of the rover. At first it was assumed that the Perseverance would leave them along the way, like Thumb-Boy, bread crumbs, but then it was decided to take them to a specially selected landing site. There “Perseverance” will leave samples that will await the next mission, presumably in 2026. The sample area is called “26-26-31”.

It is assumed that in 2026, two spacecraft will go to Mars at once. One of them is intended for the next rover, and the other will consist of a departure module and a vehicle that remains in orbit. The new rover (unfortunately, Perseverance may already be broken by that time) within 13 months will load samples into the launch module, which will enter Mars orbit, dock with the spacecraft located there, and set off on a long three-year journey to Earth.

If they can get the samples back to Earth, scientists will be able to study them with more accurate and sensitive laboratory instruments and, possibly, discover something that Perseverance missed in its research. Naturally, NASA and EKA adhere to the highest security protocol. When the samples are delivered to Earth’s orbit, scientists will once again check the containers for leaks and only then will they send them for study in terrestrial laboratories.

In the meantime, “Perseverance” is only testing all its devices and mechanisms. I would like to hope that he will be able to complete all the tasks planned by scientists.

Mikhail Kotov

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