Just as Hercules undertook 12 seemingly impossible labors, NASA’s Perseverance Rover has too been put through its own set of challenging tasks over the past few years to ensure it goes the distance to Mars. Fire, ice, light, and sound have all played a part in its grueling tests, but Perseverance has lived up to its name and shown that it is capable of turning from zero to hero.
Despite the logistical problems posed by the current pandemic, NASA is still adamant Perseverance will begin its journey to Mars between July and August later this year. Once landed on the planet (expected to be on February 18, 2021), the spacecraft will begin to investigate the geology of its surroundings and ultimately assess its past habitability. But in such a ground-breaking project, there is no room for error, and scientists have to be sure the rover can withstand every aspect of its journey.
“Mars is hard, and everybody knows that,” project manager John McNamee of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California said in a statement. “What they may not realize is that to be successful at Mars, you have to test the absolute heck out of the thing here on Earth.”
The rover’s first hurdle begins at the launch-pad. Atop the launch vehicle, Perseverance will be subjected to punishing levels of noise, enough to cause parts to come loose, potentially jeopardizing the whole mission. To ensure this doesn’t happen, engineers placed the spacecraft in a special chamber at JPL and blasted it with soundwaves louder than what you’d experience standing behind a roaring jet engine (about 143 decibels). Although some fasteners had to be tightened and a few cables replaced during the daylong acoustical test, the team are confident that “while Perseverance will certainly be shaken during launch, nothing should stir.”
After traveling 505 million kilometers (314 million miles) through space, Perseverance will face another challenge – the descent onto the Red Planet’s surface. Using a parachute design based on the one successfully deployed by the Curiosity Rover back in 2012, a smooth landing depends on the ability of this chute to slow down the fast-moving spacecraft in the Martian atmosphere.
This 21.5-meters (70.5-foot) diameter parachute has been put through its paces in a wind tunnel, on test flights with Black Brant IX sounding rockets, and even exposed to a 67,000-pound (30,300-kilogram) load – 85 percent higher than what it is expected to experience on the mission. Not only that, but the parachute deployment mechanism was tested in a variety of temperatures to make sure it will function on its approach to Mars.
Pending a successful landing, Perseverance will then need to survive on the inhospitable planet. To mimic the sunlit days on Mars, the team placed the rover in a vacuum chamber where light from xenon lamps were reflected by mirrors onto the spacecraft. Having successfully withstood this environment, the engineers shut the door to the chamber and removed the majority of the atmosphere to simulate Mars’ thin atmosphere.
The temperature was then plummeted to -129˚C (-200˚F) to see whether the rover would be able to function during the coldest Martian nights. Still able to turn its wheels and deploy its helicopter, the spacecraft triumphed again.
But this mission is about more than just survival – it is about discovery. To help achieve this, the rover has been fitted with 25 cameras – the most ever used for an interplanetary expedition. After each imager underwent an “eye-exam” to determine its capabilities, Perseverance’s overall vision was suitably deemed 2020.
Having persevered through the relentless tasks, the countdown to the Mars Rover’s launch is well and truly on.