The Mars Perseverance rover has achieved many milestones with more than 100 sols of exploration on the Red Planet. Perseverance and its operators at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have tested all of the rover’s cameras and instruments. The rover has returned more than 76,000 raw images that are loaded in the mission multimedia catalog available online to everyone. The Ingenuity Mars helicopter has been deployed while Perseverance monitored and relayed all seven successful flights. The rover has recorded the sounds of Mars.
Another major milestone has been the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. The MOXIE experiment extracted breathable oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere, taking in carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, then split the carbon dioxide molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide using an electrochemical process.
At the Mars Innovation Forum Panel, Mike Hecht, MIT associate director and principal investigator of MOXIE, reported, “MOXIE made grams of oxygen and we need tons for a human Mars base. Then we need to liquefy the oxygen product. We will need lots of energy and sophisticated AI to run these systems reliably and safely.”
The EXPLORER reported on Ingenuity Flight 4 last month. Now, with three more flight credits, Perseverance and Ingenuity are traveling south exploring Jezero Crater together.
Ingenuity Flights 5, 6
May 7, 2021 (Sol 76) Ingenuity completed its first flight without returning to the initial take-off site. It flew 129 meters and landed at a new site. This ended the technology demonstration phase and began the exploration operations phase.
On May 22 (Sol 90), Ingenuity flew a record 215 meters to begin a new exploration operation phase. The helicopter transmitted color stereo imagery of a selected site of interest showing the value of an aerial exploration. Ingenuity landed at a new site not surveyed from previous flights. Ingenuity experienced its first in-flight anomaly causing the helicopter to pitch yaw. It landed safely.
Håvard Grip, JPL’s Ingenuity helicopter chief pilot, explained, “Telemetry from Flight Six shows that the first 150-meter leg of the flight went off without a hitch. But toward the end of that leg, something happened: Ingenuity began adjusting its velocity and tilting back and forth in an oscillating pattern. This behavior persisted throughout the rest of the flight. Prior to landing safely, onboard sensors indicated the rotorcraft encountered roll and pitch excursions of more than 20 degrees, large control inputs, and spikes in power consumption. Ingenuity constantly “corrected” to account for phantom errors. Large oscillations ensued. The flight uncovered a timing vulnerability that will now have to be addressed; it also confirmed the robustness of the system in multiple ways.”
On June 8, 2021 (Sol 107) on Flight 7, Ingenuity flew 106 meters south to a new site ahead of Perseverance. It transmitted color stereo imagery of a site of interest with a top groundspeed of 4 meters per second.
NASA’s original plan did not anticipate the outstanding success that Ingenuity has achieved to allow it to be a true exploration partner. NASA controllers are now executing daring new flights. As long as it survives, Ingenuity will keep scouting and flying to new sites ahead of Perseverance. Ingenuity will demonstrate operations that NASA could employ with future space exploration helicopters.
Ken Farley, a project scientist with NASA’s Perseverance rover, said in a briefing, “The ability to fly the helicopter out into terrain that the rover cannot possibly traverse and bring back scientific data – this is extremely important for future missions that could combine a rover with a reconnaissance helicopter.”
Meanwhile, on May 20, 2021, NASA announced that the Curiosity rover, roughly 3,700 kilometers away from Perseverance, has detected salts that could be an important clue to organic molecules on Mars. The organic salts include iron, calcium and magnesium oxalates and acetates.
A NASA team recently reported that Curiosity returned analyses consistent with organic salts are present at Gale Crater on Mars. They report that these salts could be the chemical remnants of ancient organic compounds related to possible ancient microbial life.
James M. T. Lewis, an organic geochemist who led the research at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said, “If we determine that there are organic salts concentrated anywhere on Mars, we’ll want to investigate those regions further, and ideally drill deeper below the surface where organic matter could be better preserved.”
Their research was published on March 30 in the Journal of Geophysical Research. The team mirrored data from Curiosity’s sample analysis at Mars-instrument in their Earth-based labs to help confirm the presence of organic salts.
China’s Zhurong Rover Lands Safely
China’s CNSA Tianwen 1 Mars mission entered Mars orbit on Feb. 22 and landed its rover May 14 in Utopia Planitia. The solar-powered Zhurong rover has been operating on the surface since May 22 and has an expected life span of around three months. It is gathering images of the surface and studying the planet’s subsurface as it looks for signs of ice below. To date, few images and little news have been released.
However, the latest release showed that the lander’s rocket thrust excavated a hole in the regolith nearly 30 centimeters deep. According to Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida, this bit of information should alert engineers. Future Mars base infrastructure will need hardened landing pads to prevent hyper-velocity exhaust from larger rockets doing damage to nearby equipment or excavating a hole so large that the lander might tilt over and fall.
Perseverance and Ingenuity are traveling south exploring Jezero crater together. Soon, Perseverance will drill its first samples to be archived for future return to Earth labs. The AAPG EXPLORER will continue to share the Mars exploration experience as Perseverance and Ingenuity explore the mysteries of the Martian landscape.