Why NASA's Mars Perseverance rover is essential despite the coronavirus pandemic
In about a month, a rover and helicopter designed to look for past signs of extraterrestrial life will take part in the ultimate social distancing experiment as they embark on an 84-million mile journey to Mars.
Called the Mars Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter, the NASA science mission is just the latest to embark on a study of the red planet.
The spacecraft is scheduled to launch atop United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket at 9:15 a.m. July 20 — 51 years after Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon — from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 41.
Perseverance will join the ranks of past rovers like Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, and Curiosity, but will do so during a turbulent and unprecedented time here on Earth.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which designed the rover, has been operating in a remote-work capacity, forcing teams working on Perseverance to continue to do so from home.
"A few months ago we were faced with something we really never expected, as was the rest of our community and the rest of the country and the world. And that's the pandemic," Matt Wallace, Perseverance deputy project manager at JPL, said during a Wednesday media teleconference.
"It really began to affect us in mid-March. We were at a critical time in the processing for the spacecraft. All the elements were down at Kennedy Space Center and we had to fully assemble and do the final testing of the spacecraft. It had to be done right. You can't make a mistake at that point and of course, the environment made that a lot more difficult," Wallace said.
Yet instead of postponing the launch for a time when the pandemic has waned, NASA decided to persevere.
"This mission was one of two missions that we protected to make sure that we were going to be able to launch in July and the reason that's important is because of the alignment," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during the teleconference.
Earth and Mars are on the same side of the sun only every 26 months. That means if Perseverance is unable to launch during a specific time frame, which in this case is from July 20 to August 11, it will be forced to go back into storage for another two years until the next opportunity.
This is problematic because it could cost the agency approximately half a billion dollars to do so, which is why the $2.4 billion mission is proceeding as scheduled despite the pandemic.
To recognize the unsettling conditions the world has been dealing with, the teams at JPL designed a "COVID-19 Perseverance plate" that is now attached to the rover.
"This is a plate that's now fixed to the port side of the rover, and it has a symbol of a globe representing all of us that face this challenge together, a spacecraft leaving the Earth on its way to Mars and all of this supported by the now familiar staff and serpent of the medical community, the community that was really on the front lines keeping us safe," Wallace said.
Unlike when NASA asked people to watch SpaceX's Demo-2 launch on May 30 from home, the agency is not making similar requests for this launch despite the surge in COVID-19 cases that continue to rise in Florida.
That launch, which sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule, marked the first time humans launched to orbit from American soil since the shuttle program retired in 2011.
"We asked people not to travel for DM-2, which was, of course, the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon and Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in the capsule, but it appears people didn't listen to us," Bridenstine said. "So, we're asking people to follow all of the necessary guidelines to keep themselves safe and we're trusting them."
If all goes according to plan, Perseverance and Ingenuity will land on Mars Feb. 18, 2021, where they will begin their mission of collecting and caching Martian rock samples to send back to Earth — a feat that has never been attempted before. A later mission would attempt to collect the samples.
The mission will also be the first time a helicopter flies on Mars.
"Perseverance is the most sophisticated mission we've ever sent to the red planet surface," NASA's Planetary Science Division director Lori Glaze said during the teleconference.
In total, the mission is expected to last about ten years from the time Perseverance lands on Mars to when the sample returns are sent back to Earth.
"NASA has an amazing ability to do stunning achievements even in the midst of difficult times," Bridenstine said. "Alex Mather, a seventh grader in Northern Virginia actually named (Perseverance) ... and I think right now more than ever that name is so important because we are persevering and we are achieving, even in the midst of these very challenging times."
Contact Jaramillo at 321-242-3668 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AntoniaJ_11.
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