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PERSEVERANCE: NASA’S MISSION EXPLAINED

Focus: GS-III Science and Technology

Introduction

  • NASA’s incredible journey of driving on Mars started about 23 years ago, in 1997: when the Mars Pathfinder Mission with the Sojourner rover egressed on the Martian soil.
  • NASA went on to send the twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, to Mars in 2003, followed by Curiosity in 2012, followed by Perseverance which scheduled to launch soon.

Why rovers?

  • Rovers provide a way to study the local area in much higher resolution than is possible from an orbiting spacecraft.
  • In addition, rovers have a suite of instruments from drills to spectrometers to microscopic imagers: these instruments help understand the local geology much like a field geologist would study rocks on Earth.
  • In addition, starting with Spirit and Opportunity, rovers have acted as mobile weather stations on Mars that monitor changes in the Martian atmosphere continuously over multiple years.

What is new with Perseverance?

  • First, Perseverance will carry a unique instrument, MOXIE or Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment: which for the first time will manufacture molecular oxygen on Mars using carbon dioxide from the carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere.
  • There is the new push for ISRU at NASA: in NASA jargon, ISRU means In Situ Resource Utilization: or the use of local resources to meet human needs or requirements of the spacecraft.
  • Perseverance will carry Ingenuity, the first ever helicopter to fly on Mars.
  • Ingenuity is a technology demonstration: the challenge, of course, is to fly the helicopter in the thin atmosphere of Mars.
  • Mars helicopter can help in rover drive planning and in fetching samples from locations that the rover cannot safely drive to.
  • Perseverance is the planned first step to bring back rock samples from Mars for analysis in sophisticated laboratories on Earth: with the goal of looking for biosignatures: or signatures of present or past life.

Why oxygen extraction is important?

  • If astronauts have to carry oxygen or water or rocket fuel for their journey for a two-year journey to Mars and back, the cost will be understandably excessive.
  • If oxygen can be successfully extracted on Mars in some significant scale, this can have two direct advantages:
  • The oxygen can be used for human visitors to Mars.
  • The oxygen can be used to manufacture rocket fuel for the return journey.

What is the reason for the near-term interest in Mars?

  • Mars, the Red Planet, has several Earth-like features– such as clouds, polar ice caps, canyons, volcanoes, and seasonal weather patterns.
  • For ages, scientists have wondered whether Mars can support life.
  • In the past few years, Mars missions have been able to discover the possible presence of liquid water on the planet, either in the subsurface today or at some point in its past.
  • Another significant point is: exploration of Mars will pave the way for other missions to planets farther away and hence are very important for the future missions.
  • In the near term, the increase in interest related to Mars is because of Elon Musk’s plans for commercial travel.
  • A human mission to Mars has always been an aspiration for different space agencies including NASA.
  • Though technologically possible, the cost was known to be prohibitive, hence, NASA’s plans to send astronauts to Mars have been, in large part, aspirational: in other words, without adequate funding.

-Source: Indian Express

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September 2022
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