Mars missions update

Cosmos Magazine


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NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is now attached to the top of the rocket that hopefully will send it towards the Red Planet within the next month.

Encased in the nose cone that will protect it during launch, the rover and the rest of the Mars 2020 spacecraft – the aeroshell, cruise stage and descent stage – were fixed to a United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The process began when a 60-tonne hoist lifted the nose cone, otherwise known as the payload fairing, 39 metres to the top of the waiting rocket. There, engineers made the physical and electrical connections that will remain between booster and spacecraft until about an hour after launch.

Two days before the launch window opens on 30 July, the Atlas V will make a 40-minute, 550-metre trip to the launch pad. From there, Perseverance has about seven months and 467 million kilometres to go before arriving at its destination.

There to meet it will be the Curiosity rover, an eight-year veteran of the Martian landscape, which has just begun a slow road trip along this dramatic 1.6-kilometre route.

Mars mission
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

By trip’s end, it will be able to ascend to the next section of the five-kilometre Mount Sharp, which it has been exploring since 2014, searching for conditions that may have supported ancient microbial life.

The next stop is a part of the mountain called the sulfate-bearing unit, but standing in the way is a vast patch of sand that Curiosity must drive around to avoid getting stuck. Hence the road trip. And it’s a slow trip, because the rover’s top speed ranges from 25 to 100 metres an hour.

The upper part of the mountain looms at the top of the picture above, which is a panorama of 116 individual images taken by Curiosity’s mast camera. The final version was white-balanced so the colours of the rock materials resemble how they would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth.

Elsewhere on Mars not everything is going quite to plan. NASA’s InSight lander has had to use its robotic arm to help the heat probe known as “the mole” try to burrow into the planet’s surface.

Mars mission
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The mole is part of an instrument called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, a crucial player in a mission to provide the first look at the Red Planet’s deep interior and reveal details about its formation.

However, the self-hammering mole – essentially a 40-centimetre pile driver – has experienced difficulty getting into the soil since February 2019.

NASA says it’s mostly buried now, thanks to recent efforts to push down on the mole with the scoop on the end of the robotic arm, but whether it will be able to dig deep enough – at least three metres – to get an accurate temperature reading of the planet remains to be seen.

The next job for the arm is to turn its camera onto InSight’s own solar panels for the first time in a year.

It’s the dusty season on Mars, and the panels are likely coated with a fine layer of reddish-brown particles. Estimating how much dust will help engineers monitor the lander’s daily power supply.

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