Featured Image Source: NASA
NASA's next mission to the Red Planet will launch the first Mars Helicopter in July. Scientists and engineers have been developing the spacecraft since 2016. The Mars Helicopter was tested one last time as teams attached the helicopter to the Perseverance rover this week. It is a new experimental technology, NASA will assess if it will be capable of safely flying through the rough Martian environment. The Mars Helicopter will help the Perseverance rover search for locations to study; it is solar-powered, equipped to provide overhead images with ten times higher resolution of orbital images. Aerial exploration of Mars will provide more data to map the planet’s surface and plan astronauts’ future travel routes. It carries no scientific instruments, only cameras. Perseverance will carry seven scientific instruments to analyze terrain. It also features 23 cameras and two microphones. The microphones will be used upon landing, also while collecting samples. Its initial mission will be to explore a crater called, Jezero.
The majority of the Mars team is currently working from home amid the coronavirus pandemic. The agency is striving to have the rover and helicopter ready in 87 days. “Based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the project has transitioned 90% of the team to telework. In this new mode, the team has continued to mature its software, mission planning and operations procedures, and systems engineering readiness for launch. Like many Americans, they are persevering from home.” The agency wrote in a statement:
“The mission has not paused because Mars won't, either. Owing to planetary alignment, the only time to launch a large payload to Earth's second-closest planetary neighbor occurs just three weeks out of every 26 months. If Perseverance doesn't make it off the launch pad before the end of this launch opportunity, the project will have to wait until September 2022 to try again. Perseverance is the only NASA mission in the next several months with such an orbital constraint. The women and men of Perseverance will tell you that their efforts pale in comparison to the inspiring work being performed by our frontline healthcare workers and first responders fighting COVID-19 across the globe. Like all of us, they worry about their families and communities.”
The Perseverance Rover and Mars Helicopter are currently undergoing final prelaunch preparations at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. NASA states, about 80 “mission-critical team members” are working on-site operations, and are wearing personal protective equipment. "These are people with a very special skillset — they know how to put all the pieces together," said JPL's Matt Wallace, deputy project manager for Perseverance. "While this team has done a remarkable job in a very difficult time for our nation and the world, we would not have been able to continue through this global emergency without the support of colleagues across the agency."
Last weekend, Perseverance's descent stage was filled with propellant before the helicopter integration. The descent stage is a spacecraft that works like a crane to lower Perseverance onto the Martian soil with cables, as it conducts a landing. "The last hundred days before any Mars launch is chock-full of significant milestones," David Gruel, the Mars 2020 [Perseverance Rover] assembly, test and launch operations manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. "Fueling the descent stage is a big step," Gruel added. "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." NASA announced yesterday, Perseverance will launch sometime between July 17 and August 5. The time frame will enable it to land on Mars' Jezero Crater by February 18, 2021.