Nasa's Perseverance Mars mission: Sherlock's probe, & an Indian connection

Topics NASA | NASA Mars mission | Mars

The rover, with high-priority science goal to address key questions on the possibility of life on Mars, is being seen as the next big step ahead of the proposed future manned missions. (NASA)
The National Aeronautical and Space Administration (Nasa) is in the final stage of preparation for one of its most crucial launches of 2020 — the Perseverance rover mission to Mars. The spacecraft will be launched on July 30 as the Red Planet makes its closest approach to the Earth.

Part of an ongoing robotic exploration of the planet, this mission will last at least 687 days or one Martian year.

The rover, with high-priority science goal to address key questions on the possibility of life on Mars, is being seen as the next big step ahead of the proposed future manned missions. The rover will not only look for signs of habitable conditions on the planet in the ancient past but also search for signs of past microbial life on the surface.

The rock samples that the rover will collect will be studied with data taken from the landscape in which they formed. NASA

From studying atmosphere to attempting first powered flight

According to Nasa, the mission provides an opportunity to gather information and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to the Mars. These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying resources like subsurface water, improving landing techniques, characterising weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that might affect future astronauts living and working on the red planet.

Inguinity will become the first aircraft to attempt powered flight on another planet. (NASA)

Nasa is also sending a small, autonomous rotorcraft on the rover to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Mars. Dubbed ‘Ingenuity’, it will become the first aircraft to attempt powered flight on another planet.

SHERLOC & Watson to spy Martian surface

With the launch of the Perseverance, Nasa plans to immortalise two iconic fictional characters — Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Watson. Far from 221B Baker street — the London address of Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated fictional detective — SHERLOC, an instrument at the end of the rover's robotic arm will hunt for sand-grain-sized clues in Martian rocks. It will function in tandem with WATSON, a camera that will take close-up pictures of rock textures. The two instruments will study rock surfaces and map out the presence of certain minerals and organic molecules, the carbon-based building blocks of the life on the Earth. SHERLOC stands for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals. Scientists will use Raman spectroscopy, a scientific technique named after Indian physicist CV Raman to identify different molecules based on the distinctive spectral fingerprint visible in their emitted light.  

SHERLOC, an instrument at the end of the rover's robotic arm will hunt for sand-grain-sized clues in Martian rocks. (NASA)

The rock samples that the rover will collect will be studied with data taken from the landscape in which they formed. SHERLOC will also take readings of five samples of spacesuit fabric and helmet material developed by Nasa's Johnson Space Center as they change in the Martian landscape over time, giving spacesuit designers a better idea of how they degrade.

Gathering rocks and regolith for Earth from Mars

The mission will collect first samples from another planet to be brought to the Earth by subsequent missions. The rover will rely on its Sample Caching System for collecting the rocks. According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the rover is akin to a collection of robots working together. The Sample Caching System located at the front of the rover is composed of three robots, the most visible being its 2-metre-long robotic arm. The arm carries a rotary percussive drill to collect core samples of Mars rock and regolith (broken rock and dust). The second robot, called the Bit Carousel, will provide drill bits and empty sample tubes to be later placed into the rover's chassis for assessment and processing. The third robot in the Sample Caching System with a handling arm known as the ‘T.rex arm’ will move sample tubes between storage and documentation.

Essentially, after the rotary percussive drill takes a core sample, it will turn around and dock with one of the four docking cones of the bit carousel. Then the bit carousel rotates the Mars-filled drill bit and a sample tube down inside the rover to a location where the handling arm grabs it. That arm pulls the filled sample tube out of the drill bit and takes it to be imaged by a camera inside the Sample Caching System. After the sample tube is imaged, the small robotic arm moves it to the volume assessment station, where a ramrod pushes down into the sample to gauge its size. The Sample Caching System places the tube in the sealing station, where a mechanism hermetically seals the tube with the cap.

The Atlas V is one of the largest rockets used for interplanetary flight. (Source: ULA)

A bumpy ride to Mars

The rover will be launched to Mars atop an Atlas V-541 rocket manufactured by the United Launch Alliance from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Atlas V is one of the largest rockets used for interplanetary flight. The rocket was previously used to send off InSight and Curiosity rovers. The spacecraft follows an entry, descent and landing process successfully used in the past. It will touch down on the Martian surface on February 18, 2021, after spending nearly seven months in outer space.

The mission comes two years after the InSight lander touched down on the Martian surface in 2018. InSight is on a two-year mission to study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all celestial bodies with rocky surfaces, including the Earth and the Moon, formed.


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