There has been all sorts of news from around the world in the past month, but also some big developments outside of it. First, NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, has landed on Mars and begun its search for life. In addition, a new mission known as Inspiration4 has been announced, and it promises several firsts when it comes to space travel.
The Perseverance Rover
July 30th, 2020 marked an important day in the history of United States space exploration, as it was on that day that NASA launched Perseverance, the latest rover to be sent to Mars. Just under seven months later, the spacecraft completed its 480 million kilometer journey and touched down on the red planet on February 18th, 2021.
That said, this mission began long before the rover and its accompanying spacecraft—which includes the first ever drone to fly on Mars—were launched into space. Like all space exploration missions, Perseverance was an enormous undertaking, with a total budget estimated at $2.9 billion and team boasting over 350 members. The team includes a wide variety of professionals, ranging from administrative workers, to geologists, astronomers, and many systems, mechanical, and aerospace engineers.
Perseverance is the fifth American rover to operate on Mars (sixth worldwide), and one of only two that is currently operational, the other one being Curiosity, which was launched n 2011. There have been three other American rovers on Mars’ surface which are no longer operational, including Opportunity which was working as recently as 2019 but ceased functioning after a dust storm blocked out the sun and it lost power after nearly 16 years roaming the red planet. The other two are Sojourner and Spirit, launched in 1997 and 2003, respectively.
It is the third costliest Mars mission in US history, trailing Curiosity ($3.2B) and the Viking 1 and 2 operations from 1975, whose total cost adjusted for inflation sits at $7.1 billion. These were not technically rovers, though. Rather, they were stationary modules which took the first photos and from Mars’ surface and uncovered strange chemical data from the Martian soil, which has partially acted as the impetus for subsequent mission. Costs were able to be reduced on Perseverance because much of technology it operates on is borrowed from Curiosity, including most of the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) equipment.
The mission has four principal goals: looking for habitability, seeking biosignatures, caching samples, and preparing for humans. The first of these—looking for habitability—revolves around taking geological samples in an attempt to collect data which would help indicate if there have, in the past, been conditions on Mars suitable for microbial life. Past rovers have made it clear that the surface of Mars once had running water, but it remains unclear if all of the necessary conditions to support living beings were ever present at the same time. Another way the rover checks for past life is by seeking biosignatures in specific types of rocks which are known on Earth to preserve signs of life long after any living being have perished. NASA has identified such rocks in the Jezero Crater, where Perseverance landed, but it remains to be seen whether or not any biosignatures can be found within them.
The Perseverance rover also features a brand-new drill, which allows it to core samples at the surface of the planet and store them in tubes, which are then cached on the ground. That is, tubes are left in certain locations to potentially be retrieved by future missions. The rover can move around in a 20 km range on the surface to collect and store these samples.
The rover’s fourth and final main objective is to help prepare for humans on Mars by testing how oxygen can be extracted and produced from the Martian atmosphere, which consists of 96% carbon dioxide. This will help NASA determine if or how humans will someday be able to be supported on Mars so they can plan for manned missions in the future.
The rover contains many new technologies, including a small helicopter drone called Ingenuity, which will be the first self-propelled vehicle to fly on Mars. It is supposed to fly for as many as 90 seconds and travel up to 300 meters. Also accompanying the rover is some technology produced in Kitchener by manufacturer FiberTech Optica. The company produces some of the fiber-optic cables which connect the top-mounted camera—the SuperCam—to other devices on the rover.
Slated to be launched no sooner than the fourth quarter of 2021, Inspiration4 will be the first manned space mission featuring an all-civilian crew. The crew will consist of four members, including American Hayley Arceneaux. Arceneaux is a pediatric cancer survivor and, at 29 years of age, is set to become the youngest American ever in space. She will narrowly beat out astronaut Sally Ride, who was 32 years old when she flew in 1983 (the worldwide record is held by the Russian Gherman Stepanovich Titov, who was only 25 years old when she became the fourth person to go to space, in 1961). She is also the first American with a prosthesis to go to space, after her battle with bone cancer forced her to have her knee replaced and a metal rod implanted into her thigh when she was 10 years old.
The flight is to be operated by SpaceX and was bought by billionaire Jared Isaacman, who will act as trip commander and gave the three other seats to civilians representing hope, generosity, and prosperity. The goal of the mission is to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where Arceneaux was treated as a child and now works as a physician.
Arceneaux was selected to represent hope, whereas the generosity and prosperity seats have yet to be given to anyone. The spot for generosity will go to an individual who donates to St. Jude, and the one for prosperity will be awarded to an entrepreneur who uses Shift4 Payments, the company owned by Isaacman.
Chart: This is how much each of NASA’s Mars missions have cost: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/02/mars-nasa-space-exploration-cost-perseverance-viking-curiosity/#:~:text=The%20Perseverance%20spacecraft%20itself%20cost%20%242.2%20billion.
Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover – NASA Mars: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/
Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover: https://kitchener.ctvnews.ca/piece-of-kitchener-technology-lands-on-mars-on-perseverance-rover-1.5314751
‘The sky’s not even the limit’: Cancer Survivor to Become Youngest American in Space: https://www.npr.org/2021/02/22/970173918/the-skys-not-even-the-limit-cancer-survivor-to-become-youngest-american-in-space
Viking 1 & 2: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars-exploration/missions/viking-1-2/
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