Tag Archives: Curiosity

A look at the Perseverance mission to Mars

Astronomy events are few and far between these days as clubs cope with stay-at-home restrictions and institutional closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most meetings and public star parties have been canceled for March and April while a few wait to see how events unfold.

Like some in arts and entertainment, astronomy clubs are looking for ways to take at least some of their activities online. Case in point, the Seattle Astronomical Society last week held its monthly meeting using the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Members enjoyed a presentation by SAS president John McLaren, who also is a NASA Solar System Ambassador, about the upcoming Perseverance mission to Mars.

A history of Mars exploration

McLaren gave a quick history of Mars exploration, from Mariner 4 which sent 21 photos back from Mars after a fly by in 1965 to the present work of Curiosity. He noted that Viking 1 in 1976 sent back the first photo from the surface of Mars. It was no accident that it shot its own foot.

Viking's foot on Mars
The first Viking 1 photo from Mars. Credit: NASA

“If we can only get one picture back, this is the most important picture, because they want to see how well the landing gear performed,” McLaren explained. “If they can see how the landing gear did, it gives them an idea of how they can improve the next lander.”

Unfortunately, experiments conducted by Viking were thought to rule out the possibility of life on Mars, though McLaren noted that there’s still some discussion about whether those experiments were conducted and interpreted properly. In any event, the zeal for Mars exploration cooled somewhat until the mid-1990s, when a Mars meteor discovered on Earth was found to contain what could be fossilized bacteria. This sparked new scientific interest in the Red Planet.

We returned to the surface of Mars in 1997 with Sojourner and Pathfinder, which proved we could land and drive around a rover on Mars.

“It truly was the Pathfinder that led us to design more sophisticated vehicles,” McLaren said. Spirit and Opportunity followed in 2004 and Curiosity landed in 2012.

Same car, new features

Perseverance, known as Mars 2020 until a recently concluded naming contest, will be something of a souped-up version of Curiosity. It’s based on the same design, but they’ve re-engineered the wheels, as those on Curiosity showed heavy wear unexpectedly early in its mission. Perseverance will also carry different instruments more specialized for astrobiology and geology. It will drill core samples and leave them cached on Mars awaiting a possible future return mission. And its cameras in general are more powerful and versatile than those of Curiosity. It’s mission is different, too. While Spirit and Opportunity were sent to follow the water and Curiosity is trying to figure out if Mars could have supported microbial life, Perseverance will actually be looking for evidence of that life.

Perseverance landing site on Mars
A photo by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the planned landing site for Perseverance. The target is the smooth, purple-ish area to the right of what looks like a river delta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

A big challenge for the engineers will be delivering Perseverance to its landing site, which is in a crater called Jezero on the edge of what appears to have once been a lowland sea. There’s what looks like a former river delta on the edge of Jezero crater.

“The hope is that water was here for a long time, water flowed down here building this silt, that this is the most likely location where they hope to find any signs of life,” McLaren said.

A small target

The challenge is that the landing ellipse, the target they need to hit, is ten times smaller by area than that of Curiosity and some 300 times smaller than Pathfinder’s. They’ll used a technologically enhanced version of the sky crane technique that worked for Curiosity to try to hit that target.

The window for a possible launch opens on July 17 this year and McLaren said NASA expects to land Perseverance on Mars on February 18, 2021.

You can watch a recording of McLaren’s presentation on the Seattle Astronomical Society website.

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Touchdown confirmed! Curiosity lands safely on Mars!

In what is arguably the nation’s greatest engineering achievement in space, NASA‘s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity landed safely on Mars a little after 10:15 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time Sunday. Because of the distance from Earth to Mars and the time it takes communication to travel between the two, we didn’t know until 14 minutes after it happened that a complicated landing plan worked.

Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info, a NASA Solar System Ambassador, hosted a gathering at the Kenney in West Seattle to watch NASA TV coverage of the landing. “This has already happened,” Enevoldsen said of the time delay. “It’s just like the NBC Olympics!” she quipped.

More than 50 people attended the event, and the tension was palpable in the viewing room. Here’s Seattle Astronomy video from the landing:

“Shake hands with the person next to you,” Enevoldsen said after the landing was confirmed. “That crazy landing maneuver worked!”

The Curiosity landing has at least one big Washington state connection. Rob Manning, flight system chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, attended high school in Burlington and is a 1980 graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla. Coincidentally, Enevoldsen also is a Whitman alum.

Maps and rovers

Mars fans gather after the successful landing of "Curiosity" to check out model rovers and Mars maps to learn more about the science mission. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It’s interesting and encouraging that the landing drew such a crowd late on a warm summer Sunday evening. While a number of those who attended are residents of the Kenney, a retirement community in West Seattle, local media such as the West Seattle Blog and Seattle Astronomy spread the word, and many visitors attended as well. After the excitement of the landing many of the attendees gathered around a table set up with model rovers—including some made from Lego blocks—and looked at maps of Mars with the various spacecraft landing sites marked. Enevoldsen fielded questions from many of those in attendance.

We understand there was a good crowd at the Mars Fest at the Museum of Flight as well.

It’s encouraging to see the interest in the mission and the excitement about the successful landing. NASA administrator Charlie Bolden was clearly both relieved and elated with the successful landing. The mission is a pricey one, at $2.5 billion, and a crash landing would have been demoralizing to say the least. Afterwards Bolden, speaking to the NASA TV audience, called it “a huge day for the American people.” National pride aside, it has to be good for NASA to pull off a big success in these days of shrinking budgets. Energizing the public and impressing the folks with the purse strings can only help.

Getting to Mars was the hard part; now Curiosity and its arsenal of scientific instruments can go about the business of poking around Mars for evidence that our neighbor planet has supported or could support life.

We’re curious to see what it finds.

See it happen: Curiosity arrives at Mars Sunday

Curiosity

The Museum of Flight had a full-size model of the Mars Science Lab Curiosity on exhibit back in 2010. The real one is set to land on Mars next Sunday. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The search for life on Mars will get a lot more serious next Sunday when the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” lands on the Red Planet. At least, we hope it’s a successful landing. “The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator. “This is risky business.”

At least two public gatherings are planned in Seattle for watching the historic landing attempt. Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info, a NASA Solar System Ambassador, will host a viewing event at The Kenney, 7125 Fauntleroy Way SW in West Seattle, beginning at 10 p.m. August 5.

At the Museum of Flight they’ll celebrate MarsFest 2012 beginning at 6:30 p.m. that evening. Events will include Mars-related family activities and games, Mars exploration and spaceflight engineer speakers, and a live link-up with The Planetary Society’s Planetfest 2012 in Pasadena, starring Bill Nye.

The actual landing is scheduled for about 10:30 p.m. Pacific Time August 5; if you don’t want to be out late that evening you can watch the coverage of the landing on NASA TV. That coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. Pacific.

NASA engineer Kobie Boykins, who worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, gave a talk in Seattle back in May of 2010 about the challenges of making a successful landing on Mars, calling the time of radio silence between safe landing, or crash, “six minutes of terror.” NASA has pushed that up to seven minutes for Curiosity, which is a much more challenging landing because the rover is much bigger, and cannot land with the inflatable bouncing balls used with the previous smaller rovers.

If you’re not up to speed on the Curiosity mission, the video of the NASA news conference below, published July 16, includes a lot of information about the mission and landing day.