The celebrations for the first year spent on Mars are now behind us and for the most recent rover developed by NASA it is time to embark on an epic journey, perhaps the most complex ever faced by an earth rover on the red planet. Often in recent months we have talked to you about the objectives of the Mars 2020 mission, the one that brought two concentrates of technology such as Perseverance and Ingenuity to the red planet, and how the second scientific campaign inside the Jezero crater would have been of primary importance. We had also discussed it in various articles last year and now the long awaited moment has come. The long journey towards the remains of the ancient river delta has finally come to life and soon the mission
We will not focus too much on the importance of the location, a topic we have dealt with several times, but rather on the incredible journey that has just started in these days and that will lead Perseverance to break several records.
As widely said in recent months, one of the key objectives of the Perseverance mission to Mars concerns astrobiology and, more in detail, the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover is not only allowing us to better understand the planet’s geology and past climate, but is also playing a pivotal role in enabling the future launch of the first mission to collect Martian rock samples, which will later be returned to Earth thanks to a joint ESA-NASA mission called Mars Sample Return. The most interesting samples will travel in space to our planet, in order to carry out an in-depth analysis with more accurate instruments.
A work, that of collection, which has already begun in recent months and which has not been free from problems, (remember the criticalities with the sixth sample?), But which has not actually yet come to life. But NASA has reiterated this several times and if there is a place inside the Jezero crater in which to look for ancient remains of signs of biological activity, it is precisely the ancient river delta. The first observations were made by the MRO (Mars Reconaissance Orbiter), then the arrival of the latest NASA vehicles allowed us to photograph it from a distance with great detail, but it will be the presence on site of Perseverance to reveal all the secrets of the area.
The goal is very simple, reach the river delta in just one month. In terrestrial terms it could be considered a simple and short journey, basically we are talking about 5 km, but on Mars the question is decidedly more complex since there is no margin for error.
Everything has been well planned and the rover will have to move over rough terrain at speeds significantly lower than those achieved by Ingenuity. If the Martian helicopter is able to cover 150 meters in a few seconds, Perseverance takes about 1 hour under favorable conditions and at maximum speed (about 4.2 centimeters per second).
But this incredible journey, the section of which is visible in the video above, has already begun on March 14th and is therefore less than a month away from its completion. As can be seen from the map, the route will require an extension of the trajectory with respect to the distance as the crow flies, since the central area is not passable by a land vehicle. In fact, we see centrally the impervious area of Sèitah, which Ingenuity has photographed several times, and another rocky area that cannot be faced by Perseverance.
In this phase of the journey, scientific activities will be reduced to a minimum, while the entire route will be documented by numerous photographs of the delta at various distances during the approach phase. The images will be very useful for the team of scientists engaged in the analysis of geology, who will be able to study the rocks ahead of time and evaluate the most promising targets even before arriving in their vicinity.
To arrive in perfect condition and in time in the vicinity of the remains of the ancient delta, the Perseverance rover will rely on its self-navigation systemthe most advanced ever developed for use on Mars, with which the rover was equipped.
And progress has been made since Opportunity, just think that with the deceased rover the planning of a move of a few meters required several minutes and human intervention, while now in most cases everything is resolved. in a few seconds and without human intervention, in complete autonomy (or almost). In reality, before the actual departure the team responsible for its control plans the driving commands, which thanks to the Deep Space Network reach the orbiter around Mars, which finally takes care of sending them to the rover. Depending on the complexity of the terrain the number of inputs varies greatly, but on the contrary, automatic navigation works excellently when journeys are undertaken on particularly flat routes. In such cases, there is little or no human intervention.
All this is not just about a more advanced software, but also of an updated hardware which allows you to “think while driving”. Better and faster cameras allow Perseverance to capture images quickly enough to process the route in real time.
Unlike the previous rovers, Perseverance integrates an additional computer designed only for image processing, which in summary is able to provide a particularly advanced artificial vision. With previous means, such as Curiosity and Opportunity, a single computer managed each operation and therefore the available resources were shared with other activities. The result? The processing speed suffered considerably.
As explained above, the human role is still important in the planning phase and indeed, it is undoubtedly essential for the identification via satellite images of potential traps for the rover’s wheels, such as particularly sandy areas, capable of blocking the ability to movement of a medium such as Perseverance.
Finally there is one last improvement over Curiosity’s self-navigation system and it concerns the safety space around the rover, which is less, giving it greater agility. To be more clear, if Curiosity had around it a safety bubble of about 5 meters, with Perseverance the limit is represented by the space occupied by the six wheels. The system is equipped with greater sensitivity and evaluation capacity, therefore it makes choices that previously would have been discarded for safety reasons. An example? Let’s imagine that the rover has to pass between two rocks positioned four meters from each other: Curiosity would avoid the passage preferring to go around it, while Perseverance has no problem going through them in case the soil analysis proves favorable. .
Improving the autoguider system turned out not to be an option but a necessity, NASA reveals, as it was known from before arriving in Jezero Crater that its rocky bottom could cause problems when traveling.
So we just have to follow this incredible path, the arrival point of which will in reality be only the beginning … the beginning of a scientific journey on which NASA firmly believes. About 4.5 billion years ago the water flowed strongly here and in other areas of Mars, and who knows if the remains of the ancient river delta retain any signs of biological activity. Could the discovery of the century be within reach? Many hope so and we too can’t wait to hear about it. Follow us for further updates.