Percy’s On Its Way

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Yesterday at 7:50am EDT (4:50am PDT), the Mars 2020 mission lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin its journey to land the rover Perseverance on Jezero Crater on Mars. Launching at the first opportunity its launch window, Mars 2020 didn’t start off without some rocky moments. One of which happened at 4:29am PDT, when a 4.5 Magnitude Earthquake centered just 10 miles from JPL shook us all up a little; though it was mild enough to cause no damage. So you can say, things were quite exciting around here.

Mars 2020 did have a post-launch hiccup. Due to a concerning sensor reading, they placed the spacecraft into “safe mode”, a condition that shuts down all critical instruments to protect them. After some diagnostics, there was an all clear, and is back into normal conditions.

The live launch would have been something to see. Mars 2020, with it’s cruse stage, heat shield, landing crane, and rover is one of the heaviest unmanned space missions in history. More weight means more boom at launch. They strapped that bad boy on top of an Atlas V-541 nicknamed the Dominator, one of the most powerful rockets in history. That power was evident right from the beginning, a fact emphasized by the time to clear the tower. Apollo missions usually took about 8 seconds to clear the tower, the Atlas in 5. Now the mission is traveling at over 24,000 miles an hour, but it has 300 million miles to go. While trajectory changes may impact the arrival, currently the mission is scheduled to land on Mars on February 21st, 2021.

Like most JPLers, I watch the launch from home with a sleeping pup by my side. Previous missions usually came with watching parties and events around JPL and Pasadena, but with the pandemic going on all of those were canceled months ago. While I worked on Mars 2020, there would be so many direct support JPLs, friends, and family that I probably wouldn’t have gotten an invite to those watch parties. I had plans to head to Florida to watch the launch in person, but the pandemic again ruined that idea. So, it was my couch and my Auggie.

I was surprised by my reaction to the launch. I’ve always loved to watch a rocket launch, and seemed to either be excited or in awe. This time, I was nervous. Everything thing on the stream that looked slightly off made me panic, or caused me to fear the worst. This was our biggest mission, with millions of hours of hard work behind it. I told someone, “This must be what it feels like to care about a mission and the people who made it happen.”

For now, we wait. There will be six trajectory adjustments along the way. The first in two weeks, the second in two months. In the meantime, we will just let our friend fly.

Countdown to Perseverance

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This Thursday, at 7:50am EDT, Mars 2020 (and the Perseverance Rover) is expected to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, FL.

If you can’t physically be there for the launch, you can watch it on nearly any streaming service including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Just search for NASA TV or JPL. It maybe on cable and network TV, whether or not they pick it up, but it’s worth checking when it comes along.

Mars 2020 is the largest, most complex Mars mission to date. Designed, built, and perfected by my colleges at the Jet Propulsion Lab, the billion dollar project took years to come together. Now, it sits on the launch pad going to the final bells and whistles in hopes the July 30th launch window is a winner. Build in the shadow of it’s predecessor, Curiosity, which launched and landed in 2012, Perseverance is heading up in search of signs of previous Marian life.

To get all this done, there a bunch of key instruments on board:

SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) uses spectrometers, a laser, and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life.  I visited the company that designed and built this instrument (literally a garage, there was a motorcycle repair shop next door).  They gave me a laymen’s version of what SHERLOC does, and it essentially will scan the ground for signs of organics.  In other words … if there was life at any time in the dirt under the rover, this guy will find it.  This is the unit that could prove that Earth wasn’t the only life-bearing planet, that we aren’t alone in this universe.

By the way, if you can’t tell JPL and NASA use heavy hands when naming their instrumentation.  Sometimes forcing an acronym to work even if it is quirky.  SHERLOC is an investigation tool, kind of like the fictional detective.  Well, SHERLOC happens to have a camera that acts as a sidekick and helps to make observations of how the instrument is doing … that’s right, it’s called WATSON.

MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) is another big one.  Mars’s atmosphere isn’t breathable by humans, but it has some oxygen in it.  If humans are ever going to visit or live there, then we need to know if we can produce enough oxygen to sustain life.  MOXIE is the first demonstration model of how that could be done.

Other instruments like PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) and RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment) are designed to take better reading so the geology of Mars.

Mars 2020 will also be equipped with the most advanced planetary cameras in history.  Few people know that while black-and-white photos are transmitted like photos on your phone, a color picture from Mars is typically is a rendering of scanned data with known feature output – think of it as there is someone on Mars explaining to an artist on Earth what they see then the artist recreates that result.  Mars 2020 will have cameras that can capture and transmit real color photos. 

Then in what is a major forward-thinking idea, the rover will have what’s called a Sample Caching System (SCS).  Like with Curiosity, the rover will be equipped with a rock drill to allow the retrieval of material for testing.  The SCS intends to take that mater and place it inside of metal tubes.  Somewhere, the tubes are stacked in a big cache by the rover and left behind.  Then somewhere in the future, a mission will send something to that cache, pick up all the tubes, then return them to Earth.  If this works out, it will be the first time material from another planet will be brought home (or our home I guess).  The SCS is going to fly, we’re pretty sure about that – but what we aren’t sure is when something will pick it up, or how, or … anything.  There is no mission planned yet to do that, but we are still doing the sampling.

Crazy right?  I mean, this is all out there and crazy.

Oh by the way … we’re going to put a helicopter on it.

You heard me.

Mars 2020 will include the Mars Helicopter.  It is a four blade drone that has the intention to fly ahead of the rover to look for potential hazards.  It comes with a docking station and everything.  It’s a hell of an idea, because like with landing the rover, no signal can be sent in real time due to the delay between Earth and Mars.  You basically have to pre-program any flight.  Thing is, if the helicopter crashes or screws up, it won’t hurt the bulldozer of a rover – so we the approach was a ‘do no harm’ mission low funded.  The inside joke is if the Helicopter can lift off and take a Rover Selfie it will be a mission success.

The launch window starts on July 30th and goes through August 15 with time frames varied over those weeks. The one problem is, if we miss the August 15th date, the window closes for a couple years. So, it’s go time.