The Perseverance Mission
I watched NASA’s news briefing on the 27th of January 2021 about Perseverance and its mission. I’m still new to this world, but so far, I’ve been consistently struck by how well NASA translates some very complex information into language that I can understand.
NASA’s News Briefing: Preview to Mars Landing panel consisted of six people (as we live in global pandemic times, all of the panelists are wearing masks, which is still jarring for me). The panelists were:
- Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters
- Lori Glaze, director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters
- Matt Wallace, Mars 2020 deputy project manager, JPL
- Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent, and landing lead, JPL
- Ken Farley, Mars 2020 project scientist, Caltech
- Briony Horgan, Mars 2020 science team member, Purdue University
The news briefing provided a helpful amount of detail to whet my appetite for the big day, and it was a very palatable level of nerdy. Props to NASA and the panellists for the great visuals for those of us that don’t speak science or engineering fluently. I recommend watching the recording, but be warned: it’s about an hour and a half long including the Q&A (I can’t say I made it through all the Q&A…). I’ve borrowed a few of the visuals from NASA, and my highlights are below, in case you’re more of a tl;dr type.
News Briefing Highlights:
This is a science mission.
Perseverance is collecting samples (to be returned to Earth on a mission in 2026) to detect ancient life on Mars, and it’s also collecting important information about the geology and climate of the planet to learn more for potential visits by humans in the future. The rover is also equipped to run MOXIE (Mars oxygen in-situ resource utilisation experiment), which is a fancy way of saying they’re going to try creating oxygen to see if they can create fuel on Mars.
Landing at Jezero crater is going to be super challenging. The whole entry, descent, landing piece sounds intense. NASA created a Hollywood-like film, with Interstellar-quality music to get us all excited about it.
For comparison and entertainment value, this is the (very bouncy) landing animation made in 2002.
NASA is taking a big risk to land at the crater, and Perseverance is equipped with AI called Terrain-Relative Navigation that will help it navigate the landing and terrain autonomously to increase the odds of success. In this illustration, you can see what looks like a tributary leading to a lake. Scientists think that Perseverance will have the best chance of finding signs of ancient life in the bottom of an ancient lake. The green line is one potential 15 mile path that Perseverance might take to achieve its mission.
I think Briony Horgan brought the most helpful visuals (beyond the awesome landing video) to make this real for me.
She showed images of Lake Salda in Turkey, because scientists think that 3.5 billion years ago, Jezero lake may have looked like this. On Earth, fossilised stromatolites (basically ancient microbes) tell us a lot about what the planet was like billions of years ago.
Also, this water looks beautiful, especially in the depths of lockdown in a grey, London winter.
These were just the highlights for me. If you want to know more, you might want to check out NASA’s version of a listicle: 7 Things to Know About the Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission.
Did you watch? Are you one of the 10.9 million people who got their names on boarding passes being carried to Mars? I’ve got mine for the 2026 mission!