When NASA’s Perseverance rover lands in Mars’ Jezero Crater next February, it’ll be carrying a tribute to the medical community and their work to quell the coronavirus pandemic.
A 3-by-5-inch aluminum plaque, showing planet Earth being supported by the ancient staff-and-serpent symbol of the medical profession, will grace the left side of the rover chassis.
Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the plaque recognizes the sacrifices that have been made by medical workers — and also by members of the mission team, who had to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the $2.4 billion project on track for launch as early as July 20.
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“The community, and the country, and around the globe, everybody had to deal with this,” Wallace said today during a briefing about the mission. “I asked the team a couple of months ago if they would like to do something to symbolize and mark these challenges that we faced, and they designed something that we call a COVID-19 Perseverance Plate.”
Perseverance was christened by a seventh-grader in early March, when the coronavirus outbreak was just beginning to take the world in its grip. Back then, deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morton wasn’t sure how well she liked the name.
“I’m a convert now,” she said in a NASA video about the pandemic’s effect on the mission. “Perseverance is the right name for the rover. It’s amazing serendipity that we get to persevere through working on Perseverance. I think now it’s a really important symbol of humanity, hopefully persevering through this great challenge.”
Opportunities to launch a spacecraft to Mars efficiently come around only every 26 months, and because getting Perseverance ready in time was judged to be an essential activity, NASA went to extraordinary lengths to keep the project going while ensuring the mission team’s safety.
“If we have to take Perseverance and put it back into storage for a period of two years, it could cost half a billion dollars,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
Team members worked from home as much as they could, but JPL also instituted “Safe at Work” rules for mission-essential workers, complete with mandatory masks, social distancing and deep cleaning.
Workers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where the rover is being assembled, had to be extra-careful about clean-room conditions.
“The objective was to keep the team as safe or safer than they would be if they were not working,” Wallace said. “Putting a spacecraft together that’s going to Mars, and not making a mistake — it’s hard, no matter what. Trying to do it during the middle of a pandemic, it’s a lot harder.”
Detectors, cameras … and a helicopter
As if the coronavirus pandemic weren’t enough to deal with, the Perseverance team also had to cope with technical challenges — for example, redesigning the parachute system so that it’ll stand up to the aerodynamic forces encountered during the spacecraft’s descent through the Martian atmosphere.
That part of the mission, known as “the seven minutes of terror,” will parallel what Perseverance’s fraternal twin, the Curiosity rover, felt during its successful entry, descent and landing in 2012.
Although the 1-ton, six-wheeled, SUV-sized Perseverance rover is built on the same structural foundation that NASA used for Curiosity, and although both rovers are designed to run on plutonium-powered generators, the instrumentation is dramatically different.
Perseverance is equipped with spectrometers that will inspect Martian rocks in different wavelengths to detect traces of minerals and organic molecules that could have been left behind by ancient life forms.
There’s also an array of cameras that will capture high-resolution still images and video, even while the rover is being dropped off by its “Sky Crane” descent stage.
The first-ever Mars helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, is tucked beneath the rover’s belly and is expected to take up to three flights over the Red Planet’s terrain once Perseverance gets itself settled. Bridenstine said that’s the part of the mission he’s most excited about.
“I am very excited about launching a helicopter to fly on another world for the first time in human history,” he said.
In addition to the COVID-19 plaque, Perseverance is carrying a laser-etched plate that bears nearly 11 million names submitted by the general public during NASA’s “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign. The names were stenciled in 75-nanometer-high letters onto three silicon chips with an electron beam.
Life on Mars?
One of Perseverance’s most important tasks is to collect and set aside samples of rock and soil that future missions will bring back to Earth for analysis. Morton said those samples just might hold the definitive evidence relating to the biggest question about Mars: Did life exist on that planet, and could it exist today?
“Our bar is high for the identification of a sign of life on another planet — as it should be, because we don’t want to make that discovery lightly,” she said. “It’s important to realize that very likely we’ll have to return those samples to Earth to make that definitive conclusion.”
Bridenstine said bringing samples back from Mars — a process that begins with Perseverance’s perambulations — will be a key step in NASA’s decade-long plan to send astronauts to the moon and then onward to the Red Planet’s surface.
He saw an auspicious sign in the date for the rover’s launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
“It’s not lost on me that 51 years ago, on July 20 … Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the moon for the first time in history,” Bridenstine said. “And during that time, they did the first-ever lunar return mission. Here we are, with Mars Perseverance, 51 years later, getting ready to do the first-ever Mars return mission.”
So will COVID-19 put a damper on next month’s big day? Bridenstine said access to NASA facilities will be restricted to ensure that the launch team stays healthy, but the surrounding areas are likely to be open to spectators.
“For this particular mission, we’re asking people to follow the guidelines of the governor of Florida,” he said. “We want everybody to practice social distancing, and if you’re within 6 feet, make sure you’re wearing a mask, those kinds of things. But we’re not telling people not to visit for the launch. … We’re asking people to follow all of the necessary guidelines to keep themselves safe, and we’re trusting them.”