NASA mission to Mars is a test bed of technologies -- autonomy, miniaturization, telecommunications, software engineering. The lessons learned will be profound and it's also just damn cool stuff.
Like a lot of people around the world, I’ll anxiously be tracking the Mars rover Perseverance as it makes its descent to the surface of the planet.
The so-called seven minutes of terror as it screams through the Mars atmosphere, completely autonomous.
It’s an amazing and risky endeavor and the product of years of work by NASA and its contractors. Its scientific mission is to look for signs that life existed on Mars. The target is the Jezero Crater, which has signs that at one time water flowed into and out of the crater. Where there was water, you’re most likely to find signs of life.
There are several firsts with this mission. Cameras will record its descent. Microphones will record the sounds. The rover also will “poop.” It is equipped with a devices that will take core samples of rocks and soil. The samples will be placed in a test-tube like container and then dropped on the surface.
The rover will leave a trail of these samples in its wake. The hope is that a later mission will retrieve the samples and bring them back to Earth for testing.
There also is a major research effort on board that is unrelated to the science mission and that Ingenuity, a helicopter drone on board the Perseverance.
Ingenuity will test what it takes to fly in Mars thin atmosphere. Mars gravity is about a third that of Earth’s, but the atmosphere is just 1 percent as thick. That thin atmosphere is the challenge because it makes it difficult to generate the lift needed to fly. That’s test number one -- getting off the ground.
Test number two focusing on ingenuity will be completely autonomous. It takes 12 minutes for a radio transmission to travel from Earth to Mars, so there will no live pilot on Earth with a joy stick flying Ingenuity in real time.
NASA will send a mission to Ingenuity and then the craft will execute it. The missions will be the basics -- takeoff, hovering, traveling a set distance, landing, taking off again and so on.
But that will be the foundation for future autonomous drones. Master the basics of flight on Mars and later drones will have missions such as collecting samples, surveilling the landscape inaccessible to the rovers.
Here is a 3-D model of Ingenuity.