NASA, ULA Launch Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Mission to Red Planet
NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission is on its way to the Red Planet to search for signs of ancient life and collect samples to send back to Earth.
Humanity's most sophisticated rover launched with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at 7:50 a.m. EDT (4:50 a.m. PDT) Thursday on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
"With the launch of Perseverance, we begin another historic mission of exploration," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "This amazing explorer's journey has already required the very best from all of us to get it to launch through these challenging times. Now we can look forward to its incredible science and to bringing samples of Mars home even as we advance human missions to the Red Planet. As a mission, as an agency, and as a country, we will persevere."
The ULA Atlas V's Centaur upper stage initially placed the Mars 2020 spacecraft into a parking orbit around Earth. The engine fired for a second time and the spacecraft separated from the Centaur as expected. Navigation data indicate the spacecraft is perfectly on course to Mars.
Mars 2020 sent its first signal to ground controllers via NASA's Deep Space Network at 9:15 a.m. EDT (6:15 a.m. PDT). However, telemetry (more detailed spacecraft data) had not yet been acquired at that point. Around 11:30 a.m. EDT (8:30 a.m. PDT), a signal with telemetry was received from Mars 2020 by NASA ground stations. Data indicate the spacecraft had entered a state known as safe mode, likely because a part of the spacecraft was a little colder than expected while Mars 2020 was in Earth's shadow. All temperatures are now nominal and the spacecraft is out of Earth's shadow.
When a spacecraft enters safe mode, all but essential systems are turned off until it receives new commands from mission control. An interplanetary launch is fast-paced and dynamic, so a spacecraft is designed to put itself in safe mode if its onboard computer perceives conditions are not within its preset parameters. Right now, the Mars 2020 mission is completing a full health assessment on the spacecraft and is working to return the spacecraft to a nominal configuration for its journey to Mars.
The Perseverance rover's astrobiology mission is to seek out signs of past microscopic life on Mars, explore the diverse geology of its landing site, Jezero Crater, and demonstrate key technologies that will help us prepare for future robotic and human exploration.
"Jezero Crater is the perfect place to search for signs of ancient life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "Perseverance is going to make discoveries that cause us to rethink our questions about what Mars was like and how we understand it today. As our instruments investigate rocks along an ancient lake bottom and select samples to return to Earth, we may very well be reaching back in time to get the information scientists need to say that life has existed elsewhere in the universe."
The Martian rock and dust Perseverance’s Sample Caching System collects could answer fundamental questions about the potential for life to exist beyond Earth. Two future missions currently under consideration by NASA, in collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency), will work together to get the samples to an orbiter for return to Earth. When they arrive on Earth, the Mars samples will undergo in-depth analysis by scientists around the world using equipment far too large to send to the Red Planet.
An Eye to a Martian Tomorrow
While most of Perseverance's seven instruments are geared toward learning more about the planet's geology and astrobiology, the MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) instrument's job is focused on missions yet to come. Designed to demonstrate that converting Martian carbon dioxide into oxygen is possible, it could lead to future versions of MOXIE technology that become staples on Mars missions, providing oxygen for rocket fuel and breathable air.
Also future-leaning is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which will remain attached to the belly of Perseverance for the flight to Mars and the first 60 or so days on the surface. A technology demonstrator, Ingenuity's goal is a pure flight test – it carries no science instruments.
Over 30 sols (31 Earth days), the helicopter will attempt up to five powered, controlled flights. The data acquired during these flight tests will help the next generation of Mars helicopters provide an aerial dimension to Mars explorations – potentially scouting for rovers and human crews, transporting small payloads, or investigating difficult-to-reach destinations.
The rover's technologies for entry, descent, and landing also will provide information to advance future human missions to Mars.
"Perseverance is the most capable rover in history because it is standing on the shoulders of our pioneers Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity," said Michael Watkins, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "In the same way, the descendants of Ingenuity and MOXIE will become valuable tools for future explorers to the Red Planet and beyond."
About seven cold, dark, unforgiving months of interplanetary space travel lay ahead for the mission – a fact never far from the mind of Mars 2020 project team.
"There is still a lot of road between us and Mars," said John McNamee, Mars 2020 project manager at JPL. "About 290 million miles of them. But if there was ever a team that could make it happen, it is this one. We are going to Jezero Crater. We will see you there Feb. 18, 2021."
The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of America's larger Moon to Mars exploration approach that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with sending the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis program.
JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and will manage operations of the Mars Perseverance rover. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management, and ULA provided the Atlas V rocket.
NASA: Mars rover Perseverance in 'safe mode' after launch, but should recover
The rover was colder than expected after launch, NASA says.
Update for July 31, 1:45 p.m. EDT: The Mars rover Perseverance is out of "safe mode" and is back to normal operations on its cruise to the Red Planet.
NASA is celebrating the launch of its most advanced Mars rover ever today (July 30), even as engineers tackle a glitch that left the spacecraft in a protective "safe mode" shortly after liftoff.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover launched toward the Red Planet at 7:50 a.m. EDT (1150 GMT), riding an Atlas V rocket into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rover experienced minor communications and temperature glitches after launch, but the issues aren't expected to harm the mission as a whole, NASA officials said.
"It was an amazing launch, right on time," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a post-launch news conference. "I think we're in great shape. It was a great day for NASA."
Shortly after the conference, NASA confirmed that Perseverance slipped into "safe mode" due to an unexpected temperature difference.
"Data indicate the spacecraft had entered a state known as safe mode, likely because a part of the spacecraft was a little colder than expected while Mars 2020 was in Earth's shadow," NASA officials said in a statement. "All temperatures are now nominal and the spacecraft is out of Earth's shadow."
During today's post-launch news conference, the team received word that one issue, a lingering communications issue, was fixed. Within the first few hours after launch, although mission personnel could pick up the signal the spacecraft was sending home, it wasn't being processed correctly.
However, that situation didn't cause much concern, Matt Wallace, deputy project manager for Mars 2020 with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, said during the briefing. The miscommunication was caused by the fact that NASA relies on a system called the Deep Space Network to communicate with Perseverance even soon after launch, when the spacecraft isn't yet all that deep into space.
And, because the Deep Space Network is made up of massive antennas equipped with super sensitive receivers, the signal from a spacecraft so close to the network can end up blasting the system, like someone screaming directly into your ear. Engineers needed to tweak the network settings in order to actually process the information coming from the spacecraft.
"Just as the administrator was speaking, I did just get a text that we were able to lock up on that telemetry," Wallace said. "All the indications that we have — and we have quite a few — are that the spacecraft is just fine."
NASA's Curiosity rover faced a similar issue during its launch in 2011, Wallace said. "It's something that we've seen before with other Mars missions," Bridenstine said. "This is not unusual. Everything is going according to plan."
Perseverance's 'safe mode' explained
The mission team revealed a second post-launch hiccup shortly later in the news conference: Perseverance went into safe mode.
When the spacecraft got a little colder than expected passing through Earth's shadow, it automatically put itself into that state, according to the NASA statement, although the spacecraft's temperature quickly bounced back and isn't concerning the team.
Wallace emphasized that such a status shouldn't harm the mission as a whole. Safe mode is, as the name implies, designed to be safe for the spacecraft to be in right now.
"The spacecraft is happy there," Wallace said. "The team is working through that telemetry, they're going to look to the rest of the spacecraft health. So far, everything I've seen looks good."
Later, Wallace told Space.com that the Perseverance mission team had traced the the temperature issue to the system that uses freon to keep the rover's nuclear battery cool.
Because Perserverance's launch carried it into Earth's shadow, it led to colder than expected temperatures in the cooling system, as compared to a launch in uninterrupted sunlight, Wallace told Space.com. When NASA's Curiosity rover, which has a similar nuclear battery, launched in 2011, it was always in daylight and did not experience the issue, he added.
"Unfortunately, our analysis is never really perfect," Wallace added. "Curiosity didn't have an eclipse in its flight trajectory so we didn't have flight data to know what was going to happen."
"The spacecraft was never in jeopardy," he continued. "Our philosophy is to be overly conservative on the parameters because we'd much rather trigger a safing event we didn't need, than miss a safing event we do need."
The team will continue to analyze the telemetry data that the vehicle has sent so far and double check that this is indeed the hiccup. Once that is complete, the team can put the rover back in an operational status.
Wallace said he expects for the spacecraft to return to normal operations mode tomorrow (July 31). But the team is not in any rush and are taking their time to carefully review all the data.
Perseverance is scheduled to fly straight and steady for the next at least two weeks, anyway, he said, and so the team has time to get the spacecraft back into normal operating mode before the first necessary trajectory adjustment of its journey.
The launch itself went smoothly, with an unusually quiet countdown in mission control rooms, despite an earthquake that rattled southern California, including NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about 20 minutes before the rocket fired in Florida.
Today's liftoff marked an important victory for the agency, which worried that measures imposed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus pandemic might slow launch preparations enough that Perseverance might miss its three-week window for a launch, which is dependent on orbital trajectories.
Another comparable opportunity wouldn't come again until 2022; if that 26-month delay had occurred, it would have cost the agency an extra $500 million, according to Bridenstine, on top of an already difficult mission.
"[It was] adversity all along the way, but this is true for any project of this nature," Bridenstine said of struggles before the pandemic, which included a cracked heat shield and the late addition of a complicated ride-along helicopter. "Then you put on top of that the coronavirus … I'm not gonna lie, it's a challenge. It's very stressful. But look, the teams made it happen."
But, despite earlier delays that pushed the launch more than a week into its window, the spacecraft blasted off during its first shot of its first countdown.
"It was truly a team effort. And in every single case, everyone stood up and said, 'Yes, we want to do what we can to help,'" Lori Glaze, director of the agency's planetary science division, said. "Somehow, we made it through this."
Now, the spacecraft and its human team back on Earth need to make it through a seven-month journey in deep space to reach the Red Planet. Once the spacecraft arrives at Mars, it will undergo the notoriously perilous process of entry, descent and landing.
That process will unfold on Feb. 18, 2021.