NASA's Mars Missions Continue to Produce New Science While an Armada of New Spacecraft Head For the Red Planet

Artist’s illustration of the Perseverance rover mission in flight, leaving Earth on its way to Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars has been in the news a lot lately, with the successful launches of NASA’s Perseverance rover, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter and China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, lander and rover. All three missions will arrive at Mars in February 2021, so that will be a very busy time for scientists.

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (part of the Perseverance rover mission) just charged its batteries for the first time, and you can also now follow the progress of the Perseverance rover mission in real time!

Meanwhile the Curiosity rover has been busy baking more rock samples to analyze with its on-board laboratory.

In addition, NASA also just posted some incredible images to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the launch of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020 and remains in good health on its journey to Mars. It is scheduled to land in Jezero Crater on Feb. 21, 2021, where it will search for evidence of ancient life. The landing site used to be a lake bottom a few billion years ago and the rover will also explore a still-preserved delta from a river than once emptied into the lake.

In the meantime, you can now follow the mission in real time using NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System.

“Eyes on the Solar System visualizes the same trajectory data that the navigation team uses to plot Perseverance’s course to Mars,” said Fernando Abilleira, the Mars 2020 mission design and navigation manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “If you want to follow along with us on our journey, that’s the place to be.”

Artist’s illustration of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter sitting on the martian surface ahead of its first attempted flight. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

You can also fly formation with the spacecraft or check the relative velocity between Mars and Earth or even the dwarf planet Pluto.

“With all our orbital assets circling Mars as well as Curiosity and InSight on its surface, there is new data and imagery coming in all the time about the Red Planet,” said Jon Nelson, visualization technology and applications development supervisor at JPL. “Essentially, if you haven’t seen Mars lately through Eyes on the Solar System, you haven’t seen Mars.”

There are pop-up menus with dozens of controls so you can customize what you see and how you see it. There’s even a 3-D mode that you can use with red-cyan anaglyph glasses.

Eyes on the Solar System isn’t limited to Mars of course; you can also “fly” throughout the Solar System. The website not only uses real-time data and imagery from NASA’s fleet of spacecraft, it also contains NASA data going back to 1950 and projected ahead up to 2050. Location, motion, and appearance are based on predicted and reconstructed mission data.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity (UHD Trailer). Video Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Meanwhile, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has been powered up and had its batteries charged for the first time. The powering up and checkout of the helicopter’s systems was performed on Aug. 7, 2020.

Ingenuity, which looks like a small rotorcraft drone, has six lithium-ion batteries, which were charged up to 35%. That lower level of charge is considered safe and optimal for the rest of the journey to Mars.

Everything went according to plan, the mission team said:

“This was a big milestone, as it was our first opportunity to turn on Ingenuity and give its electronics a ‘test drive’ since we launched on July 30,” said Tim Canham, the operations lead for Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Since everything went by the book, we’ll perform the same activity about every two weeks to maintain an acceptable state of charge.”

Ingenuity can be seen stowed beneath the belly of the Perseverance rover in this photo from the vacuum chamber at acuum chamber at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on Oct. 1, 2019. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Flight model of Ingenuity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity will be the first-ever attempt to fly in the martian atmosphere. All other missions to date have been orbiters, landers and rovers. If it works, it will be a phenomenal achievement, something of a Wright brothers moment, for Mars. It will show that small drones/helicopters like Ingenuity can indeed fly on Mars, despite the very thin atmosphere. Ingenuity is specially designed to be able to fly in those unearthly conditions.

Ingenuity is small, weighing only four pounds (two kilograms) and was designed with a mix of specially designed components and other off-the-shelf parts. Its batteries are charged from the rover’s power supply as it remains attached to the rover’s belly. After being deployed on the surface however, it will rely on its own solar panel. Good thing cloudy days are rare on Mars!

Ingenuity will then need to go through more testing after deployment before it will actually fly.

“This charge activity shows we have survived launch and that so far we can handle the harsh environment of interplanetary space,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. “We have a lot more firsts to go before we can attempt the first experimental flight test on another planet, but right now we are all feeling very good about the future.”

After testing, and everything is still optimal, there will be a 30-day window (in martian days, or about 31 Earth days) for attempting the first-ever flight on another planet.

Launch of Perseverance and Ingenuity on an Atlas V 541 rocket on July 30, 2020, from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

Ingenuity-type aircraft would fill in a gap between orbiters and surface rovers and landers, opening up a unique new way to explore Mars. A helicopter would be ideal for getting close-up looks at the massive Olympus Mons volcano or the inside of the Valles Marineris canyon system, for example, places where it would be difficult or impossible for a rover or lander to go to.

Perseverance will land in Jezero Crater on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. Its mission is to search for evidence of ancient microbial life, and Jezero Crater is an ideal location since it used to contain a lake and a river once emptied into that lake, leaving behind a delta that can still be clearly seen today. The crater is therefore rich in sediments, including clays.

Perseverance looks very similar to the current Mars rover Curiosity, but has different and more advanced instruments, many of which are specifically designed to look for chemical or other fossil signatures of past microbial life. While Curiosity focuses on studying the ancient geology of Gale Crater and evidence for habitability, Perseverance will search for evidence of life itself. It is the first mission to do so since the Viking landers in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

Artist’s illustration of the Perseverance rover on Mars. Image Credit: NASA
Enhanced color view of part of Jezero Crater, the landing site of Perseverance in February 2021. The ancient river delate can be easily seen in the middle of the image. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL

Perseverance will also collect additional rock and soil samples that will be stored in capsules, pending a later mission that will return them to Earth. If it works, it will be the first sample-return from Mars in history. Those samples can then be studied by scientists in even more detail than Perseverance can do with its on-board laboratory.

Perseverance, and of course Ingenuity, were launched on July 30, 2020 by United Launch Alliance (ULA) on an Atlas V 541 rocket, from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The Curiosity rover, most recently, has been busy baking more rock samples, which will be analyzed in its on-board laboratory. The samples are from the new “Mary Anning” drill hole. Some of the sample is given to SAM for Evolved Gas Analysis (EGA). During EGA, SAM bakes the powdered rock sample at up to 900°C (1652°F). This releases, or “evolves,” volatile compounds which can then be measured. In addition, the Navcam camera has been imaging the area in front of the rover, and look for dust devils. The Mastcam camera will also take two stereo mosaics of the surrounding countryside.

Curiosity’s MAHLI image of the new “Mary Anning” drill hole from Sol 2851. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity has now spent eight years on Mars, searching for evidence of past habitability in Gale Crater. It has confirmed the previous existence of an ancient lake or series of lakes in the crater, found various organic molecules still preserved in mudstone rocks and even detected small amounts of methane in the air.

While Curiosity has continued exploring on the ground, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) continues to take amazing photos of the Red Planet from orbit, showing sand dunes, avalanches, craters, dust devils, old river and lake beds, mountains, gullies and more in exquisite detail. It has also photographed the two small martian moons, Phobos and Deimos,

NASA just posted a bunch of some of the best images so far, in celebration of the launch of MRO 15 years ago. They show Mars to be a very diverse world, in some ways similar to Earth, yet in others uniquely alien.

It might be easy to think of Mars as just dry and dusty with a lot of craters, but in reality, it is one of the most photogenic places in the solar system.

Sand dunes and ripples in Proctor Crater on Mars, as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on February 9, 2009. Photo Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ Univ. of Arizona
Avalanches on steep cliffs near the martian north pole on May 29, 2019, as seen by the Mar Reconnaissance Orbiters. Photo Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ Univ. of Arizona
Recurring slope lineae (RSL) in a crater in Valles Marineris, as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These kinds of dark streaks may be caused by small amounts of briny water running down steep slopes before evaporating. Photo Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ Univ. of Arizona

The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on MRO has taken a whopping 6,882,204 images since 2006.

China’s first Mars mission, Tianwen-1, is ambitious, with an orbiter, lander and rover. The mission, launched on July 23, 2020, will use no less than 13 science instruments to study Mars’ atmosphere, surface and interior. Tianwen-1 mean “quest for heavenly truth.”

If all goes well, it will be the first-ever mission to Mars to have an orbiter, lander and rover as part of the same mission.

After the lander touches down, the rover will drive down a ramp and begin exploring for a nominal mission of 90 martian days (called sols, which are 24 hours and 37 minutes long). The orbiter has seven instruments and the rover has six. The subsurface radar on the orbiter will probe down to 100 meters below the surface to look for ice and water. The cameras on the orbiter will observe features such as dunes, glaciers and volcanoes. Both the orbiter and rover also have spectrometers to study the composition of soil and rocks, and will look for evidence of how water has altered geological features. Atmospheric data on temperature, air pressure, wind speed and direction, as well as the magnetic and gravitational fields of Mars will also be collected.

China’s three-part Tianwen-1 mission consists of an orbiter, rover and lander. Image Credit: Nature
The United Arab Emirate’s Hope mission will study the martian atmosphere. Image Credit: Nature
Launch of the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Mars mission from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan on July 19, 2020. Image Credit: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries

The UAE’s Hope mission is the first mission to Mars of any Arab country. Launched on July 19, 2020, It will focus on studying the planet’s atmosphere and produce the first global weather map of Mars. Hope’s huge elliptical orbit will enable the orbiter to observe big chunks of Mars under both day- and night-time conditions, covering almost the entire planet in each 55-hour orbit.

“We’ll be able to cover all of Mars, through all times of day, through an entire Martian year,” said Sarah Al Amiri, science lead for the project and the country’s minister for advanced sciences.

“This is the first mission that will give a global picture of the dynamics of the Mars atmosphere,” says Hessa Al Matroushi, a member of the EMM science team.

Over a nominal mission of two years, Hope will track daily weather variations and the changing seasons. It will also help scientists understand how atmospheric conditions cause hydrogen and oxygen to escape into space.

With the arrival of no less than three new missions to Mars next February, and the continuing discoveries by other still-active orbiters and rovers, this is a very exciting time for Mars exploration.

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1 comment to NASA’s Mars Missions Continue to Produce New Science While an Armada of New Spacecraft Head For the Red Planet

  • Dave Gingerich

    Why no mention of NASA’s other two Mars orbiters, Odyssey and MAVEN, that are still operating, still providing science, and also telemetry relay to/from landed assets?
    Also, why no mention of NASA’s InSight mission on the Martian surface gathering data about Mars’ seismic activity and the planet’s internal structure?

    There is even more going on, and around, Mars than mentioned in this article.

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