Even in the face of COVID-19, 2020 has been a banner year for US space exploration. First, NASA teamed up with SpaceX to fly astronauts to the International Space Station in an American craft for the first time since 2011. For their next mission, they’re setting their sights even higher. July 30 marked the launch of the agency’s newest Mars rover, Perseverance, this week on July 30. Their goal? To pave the way for manned missions and search for signs of former life.
The Mars Perseverance Rover
On July 20, Parentology sat in on a webinar hosted by the Space Foundation, where scientists and officials from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) discussed the upcoming mission. One of the rover’s main objectives, they said, would be to collect evidence of possible life in Mars’ distant past.
“Really, this mission, we’re out there trying to find something we’ve never found before on another planet, and then we’re trying to capture it, isolate it, and bring those samples back to take a close look at them,” said Dr. Michael Watkins, director of NASA JPL. Among Perseverance’s complement of tools, he explained, is a mechanism that can take ground samples to be returned to Earth for study.
A Martian Wright Brothers Moment
Looking for ancient aliens isn’t the mission’s only objective, however. A small helicopter named the Ingenuity will hitch a ride on Perseverance to perform the first-ever powered flight on another planet.
“We as human beings have never flown a helicopter anywhere outside of our own Earth’s atmosphere,” said MiMi Aung, project manager at NASA JPL. “So really, a Wright brothers moment, but on another planet.”
Aung says the goal of Ingenuity‘s test flight is to pave the way for more airborne exploration of other planets.
“Today we explore Mars from spacecraft in orbit and rovers roving on the surface. In the future, there will be astronauts on the surface,” she said. “The helicopter can serve as a scout for rovers and astronauts. [It] can also allow us to reach places that are simply not accessible today without being able to fly.”
Perseverance in Name and Philosophy
For the people behind these unprecedented experiments, seeing the mission through during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a unique challenge.
“To make a mission like this succesful, it takes a lot of perseverance and brilliant, hard work in the best of times,” said Watkins. “I don’t think any of us anticipated this COVID pandemic.”
Still, Watkins said NASA pulled out all the stops to complete the mission safely and responsibly. That meant “lots and lots of telework,” as well as strict social distancing and PPE protection for on-site affairs.
As for why the team pushed on through the global crisis, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it’s all in the name.
“The Perseverance mission is about persevering,” he said. “Who are the people that are going to be inspired by these monumental achievements? What is it that they’re going to do and become? This is about inspiration.”
Unity Through Space Exploration
Bridenstine also stressed the power of space exploration as a unifying force in uncertain times.
“There are a lot of geopolitical challenges in the world, and yet space exploration brings people together in a way that I think is inspirational in and of itself,” he said.
Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, shared similar thoughts at the top of the broadcast.
“This amazing explorer could not have been ready for launch in this frantic window we have without the perseverance of teams across the country and the world who struggled and sacrificed through the global pandemic to keep their sights on this milestone of humanity,” he said. “Their work on this mission embodies the agency’s and our nation’s spirit of persevering even in the most challenging of situations.”
For more information about Perseverance and its mission, you can watch the full webinar below.
The mission is currently set to launch on Thursday, July 30 at 7:50 am. However, should unfavorable conditions cause delays as they did briefly with the NASA/SpaceX mission in May, the launch window will remain open until August 15. Perseverance is expected to arrive on Mars in February 2021.