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.

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