Despite coronavirus pandemic, NASA's next Mars rover mission perseveres for launch
Before March, Katie Stack Morgan, James Bell and Luther Beegle were all planning to head down to Florida this summer to see a mission they had spent years working on finally begin its journey to Mars.
Their baby, the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover had left its first home at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, in February and headed east to Kennedy Space Center to prepare for its upcoming launch scheduled Thursday morning.
Though Morgan, Bell and Beegle were no longer going to be working directly with the spacecraft, they did expect they'd at least get one other chance to say goodbye as it blasted off to space.
But then the pandemic struck.
All of a sudden, those working on the mission found themselves stuck at home as they scrambled to get the finishing touches of Perseverance done.
"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," Matt Wallace, Perseverance deputy project manager at JPL said last month during a media teleconference. "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."
That meant Morgan's and Bell's hope of seeing Perseverance's launch in person had vanished. Beegle, who is the principal investigator for the SHERLOC instrument on Perseverance, will still attend the launch in person, but he had originally planned on bringing his family and making a whole vacation out of it.
"It's been a struggle I think for us because so many of us want to be there in person to say goodbye to Perseverance as it heads off to Mars," Morgan, who is NASA's deputy project scientist for Mars Perseverance, told FLORIDA TODAY. "And there was a while there were I think people were feeling a little more optimistic about being able to have people on-site for the launch. But I think given how things have kind of gone the past couple weeks in Florida, I think most of our team is really rethinking whether they're wanting to take that risk."
Florida has seen a surge in positive COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. In Brevard County, there were more than 5,000 people who had tested positive for the virus and 85 who had died as of Tuesday afternoon.
As a result, Morgan will instead be at JPL at 4 a.m. on Thursday to watch Perseverance escape Earth's COVID-ridden atmosphere through NASA TV.
"It's bittersweet, you know I'm disappointed that I can't see it in person," Morgan said. "We'll celebrate all the same with our team but, unfortunately, we won't be doing it all together down in Florida, which is a bummer."
Perseverance is scheduled to launch no earlier than 7:50 a.m. Thursday aboard United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 41.
Weather is currently 80% "go" for the two-hour launch window as calculated by the U.S. Air Force.
In the event of a delay, weather improves to 90% "go" for a Friday launch and drops back down to 80% "go" for a Saturday attempt.
After launch, Perseverance, along with its companion — the Ingenuity helicopter — will head on a six-month journey to the red planet and land on Jezero Crater, an ancient lake bed and river system that was active three to four billion years ago.
Once there, the rover will attempt to search for past signs of extraterrestrial life using a variety of instruments.
One specifically, called the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals or "SHERLOC" will use spectrometers, a laser and a camera to search for organic materials that could potentially be signs of past microbial life.
"SHERLOC looks for clues of what Mars was like three and a half billion years ago," Beegle told FLORIDA TODAY.
Not only will Perseverance be the first rover to actively seek life on Mars, but it will also be the first to collect Martian rock samples so a future Mars lander can retrieve those samples and return them to Earth — a feat that's never been tried before.
But that's just one of the many things that sets Perseverance apart.
Perseverance's mission will mark the first time NASA attempts to fly a helicopter on Mars, the first time the space agency will have microphones on the rover to record the sound on the red planet and the first to have a zoom capability on its camera.
"We've had stereo cameras in the past but they've been a lower resolution or just a fixed view that is not zoomable. The cameras on Curiosity (the Mars rover that launched in 2011) have two cameras that have one of its eyes being a wide-angle camera and the other of its eyes is a telephoto camera," Bell, principal investigator of the Mars 2020 Mastcam-Z Investigation told FLORIDA TODAY.
"But with the new zoom cameras, we can go from wide-angle ... all the way to telephoto and match the two eyes the whole way. And so we'll be doing a lot more 3D imaging for science and to support rover operations than previous missions."
Bell, who has been involved with all the rovers that have gone to Mars — Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity and now Perseverance — emphasized the importance and significance of this mission in light of the current state the world is in.
"We can take inspiration from (space exploration) as a nation that we are doing that and we are defining the frontier. I mean America especially has always been a frontier nation, and the next frontier is deep space," Bell said. "It brings great pride to us as citizens, it brings pride to our politicians, it makes others around the world look to us in an aspirational way and ... it also inspires our kids."
Contact Antonia Jaramillo at 321-242-3668 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @AntoniaJ_11.
Rocket: ULA Atlas V
Mission: Mars 2020 Perseverance
Launch Time: 7:50 a.m.
Launch Window: until 9:50 a.m.
Launch Complex: Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
Weather: 80% "go"
Join floridatoday.com/space at 7 a.m. Thursday for our Livestream show and chat of the launch. We will also be hosting NASA's webcast.