This summer, NASA’s Perseverance rover will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida. When it arrives on Mars (on February 18th, 2021), it will join the Curiosity rover and a host of other missions that are looking for evidence of past and present life on the Red Planet. At present, engineers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida are conducting the final assembly of the rover in preparation for launch.
With less than 14 weeks to go before the mission’s launch period opens up, several important development milestones have been completed. This includes integrating the rover’s remaining components, like the rover’s six wheels and the small helicopter drone that will help explore the surface. These elements, and a slew of other final preparations, were integrated with the rover over the past few weeks.
The six flight wheels, spare versions of which were given their first test drive last December, were attached on March 30th at Kennedy. These wheels are similar to the ones used by Curiosity, fashioned out of flight-grade aluminum and equipped with titanium spokes. They also come with some modifications, being slightly larger in diameter, narrower, and come equipped with new treads.
Last Monday (April 6th), engineers at NASA Kennedy also attached the Mars Helicopter and the Mars Helicopter Delivery System to the rover. This helicopter, which weighs 1.8 kg (4 lbs) and measures 1.2 meters (4 feet) in diameter – from the tip of one rotor to the other – is attached to the belly of the rover and placed with it inside the mission’s descent stage.
As part of the day-long integration process, the technicians and engineers at established 34 electrical connections between the rover. These connections will be used to send data and commands between the rover and the helicopter, as well as receive them. The team also confirmed that the helicopter could receive electrical charges from the rover, which it will initially rely on for power.
Once deployed, the helicopter will generate its own through solar panels mounted above its twin counter-rotating propellers. The helicopter will remain attached to the rover’s belly for the next year and will deploy to conduct a 30-day flight test. This is scheduled to take place around the beginning of May about ten weeks after the rover and drives about 100 m (330 feet) from its landing area.
As David Gruel – the Mars 2020 assembly, test, and launch operations manager at JPL – explained in a recent NASA press release:
“The last hundred days before any Mars launch is chock-full of significant milestones. Fueling the descent stage is a big step. While we will continue to test and evaluate its performance as we move forward with launch preparations, it is now ready to fulfill its mission of placing Perseverance on the surface on Mars.”
Other elements that were integrated include Perseverance‘s parachute, which engineers finished attaching to the back shell on March 26th. This will be tasked with slowing down the heaviest payload 1,025 kg (2,260 lbs) ever sent to Mars. This parachute will deploy when the descent stage is about 11 km (7 mi) from the surface and slow it from an entry speed of Mach 1.7 (2100 km/h; 1300 mph) to about 320 km/h (200 mph).
After that, the task of bringing the descent stage in for a soft landing will fall to the “sky crane”, an eight-engine apparatus attached to the top of the rover. These engines will fire when the descent stage is at an altitude of 2,200 m (7,200 ft) and will slow the craft down to about 3 km/h (1.85 mph). By this time, nylon cords will spool out to lower the rover to its landing spot in the Jezero Crater.
Speaking of which, last weekend (April 4th and 5th), technicians and engineers loaded 401 kg (884 lbs) of hydrazine monopropellant into the descent stage’s four fuel tank. This fuel will be fed to the sky crane’s eight rockets via a series of stainless steel and titanium tubes measuring a total of 37 meters (120 ft) in length.
These elements are crucial to making sure Perseverance gets to Mars safely and can carry out its mission once it gets there. This includes searching for evidence of past (or present) microbial life, characterizing the planet’s climate and geology, and collecting samples for a future return mission to Earth. This will be performed by NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) and the ESA’s Sample Fetch Rover (SFR), which will fly to Mars in 2026.
As the latest installment in the Mars Exploration Program, Perseverance will attempt to resolve several enduring mysteries about Mars. In addition to whether or not it ever had life on its surface, there are also questions about how the rocky planets formed and how planets like Earth managed to stay habitable while others (like Mars and Venus) made the transition and became the inhospitable environments they are today.
The Perseverance rover is also part of a larger program that includes NASA’s long-awaited return to the Moon between 2024 and 2028. This includes Project Artemis, the creation of the Lunar Gateway, Solar-Electric Propulsion (SEP), the Deep Space Transport, and all the infrastructure necessary to send astronauts to the Red Planet by the 2030s.