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Communicating in Space and Exploring Mars in 2021 | SignalWire

Communicating in Space and Exploring Mars in 2021

February 2021 was a busy month for exploring Mars. Three separate projects that launched back in July 2020 have arrived at the red planet just this last month. The United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates now all have new vehicles orbiting the planet and investigating the surface. Each of these projects has its own set of goals to achieve, and all three are scheduled to last about one year on Mars, which is 687 days on Earth.

On February 18th, NASA’s Perseverance rover and its partner helicopter named Ingenuity successfully landed on Mars. Ingenuity is a technology demo with the goal of being the first vehicle on another planet to achieve rotor-powered flight and it will then map roads for future rovers. Meanwhile, Perseverance is tasked with searching for signs of past life on Mars. After landing, Perseverance snapped photos of the landing site and listened to the breeze, beaming this information back to Earth.

The team of engineers and scientists working on this project will now spend its next phase diligently testing all the functions and instruments before moving forward to send back higher quality photos of the landscape and sniff around water deposits in an area called the Jezero Crater. Once it’s good to go, the six-wheeled vehicle will start to look for signs of microbial life on the planet, collect dust samples from the Martian surface, and help us better understand the climate and geology of Mars.

High definition cameras captured the excitement of Perseverance’s landing last month (you can watch the footage here), giving Earth observers an unprecedented view of the descent. A few days later, on February 21st, NASA released a panoramic photo of the landing site, which is actually stitched together from 142 individual images. Perseverance is equipped with a Mastcam-Z, a dual camera system with capabilities to zoom and focus to take high definition photos, as well as provide panoramic color and 3D images. This powerful camera system can reveal details as small as 3 to 5 millimeters across nearby and as large as 2 to 3 meters across in the distance.

Panoramic photo of Mars taken by Perseverance.

The Jezero Crater, where Perseverance will live for its 1-Martian-Year-Long mission, is located just north of the Mars equator and was once home to a river delta. The land is 3.6 billion years old and can help answer some serious questions about the past on Mars, with a long history of water in this area making it an ideal spot to search for past microbial life.

Perseverance is about the size of a car and overall looks similar to its predecessor, Curiosity. Some of the science instruments the vehicle contains include the Mastcam-Z, a subsurface radar, laser micro-imager, weather station, x-ray spectrometer and an ultraviolet spectrometer named Sherloc (which stands for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) and its camera, affectionately named Watson. Sherloc is the main tool that will be hunting for life while its companion camera will take microscopic images of Mars. An instrument called Moxie will make oxygen from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, an experiment designed to prepare humans to go to Mars, which is a feature unique to the Perseverance project.

The rover is also equipped with microphones to send back audio samples of the red planet. Perseverance successfully recorded a snippet that features the whirring of its own fan, ended with a brief gust of wind. Though that’s maybe not the most exciting thing, these microphones will hear more wind, storms, and other movements on Mars, and sound can become a new tool in listening to the rover to diagnose problems. Unfortunately, members of the Perseverance team don’t know if (or when) the microphones will give out, due to extreme conditions like frigid temperatures and radiation.

Missions like that of Perseverance are possible thanks to the satellites of the Mars Relay Network allowing telecommunications through space, from Earth to Mars and back. Images and sound are transmitted through this network of several satellites, which includes all the NASA orbiters. The collaboration of the orbiters will be key in handling the tremendous amount of data Perseverance will transmit back home. These orbiters have telecommunications subsystems that are composed of a radio system operating in X-band microwave frequencies and ultra high frequencies. The X-band system is used for communication between Earth and the orbiter, while the ultra high frequency system is used for conversations between the orbiter and any rovers on Mars. Entry, descent, and landing data were all sent in near-real-time and the rover is currently communicating with Earthlings twice a day. Large, sophisticated satellites on Earth are also required for this communication, including NASA’s Deep Space Network, an international connection of antennas with locations in California, Spain, and Australia.

Ingenuity, the helicopter, will continue to live under Perseverance for a month or two before it’s ready to be deployed in a suitable location. These two join some other NASA bots hanging out on Mars, including Curiosity and the InSight lander. Back in 2018, the Opportunity rover lost contact with home due to a dust storm, and Perseverance is designed to avoid suffering the same fate, running on a nuclear power source like Curiosity that won’t require sunlight to keep going.

Meanwhile, China’s Tianwen-1 entered Mars’ orbit on February 10th. Tianwen-1 contains an orbiting spacecraft, a lander, and a rover, and it will remain in orbit for the next couple of months before landing in May or June. Its ambitious landing goal is to orbit, land and release the rover on its first try while coordinating observations with the orbiter. The objectives of Tianwen-1 are to provide a global survey of the entire planet, as opposed to Perseverance, which will stay in one area.

The Chinese project will be investigating gravitational trends, the atmosphere and climate, analyzing soil and dust samples, and searching for water deposits. The orbiter will study the planet from above using a high resolution camera while the rover will hunt for pockets of water deep beneath the red dirt. For about 90 Martian days, the currently unnamed rover will explore, while the orbiter serves as the telecommunications relay and continues to observe the planet from above. Because this is China’s first interplanetary mission, one of its foremost goals is to validate the communication technologies for Mars exploration like those of the Chinese Deep Space Network.

The United Arab Emirates’ orbiter, named Hope, made it to the red planet on February 9th. Equipped with a high resolution camera, infrared spectrometer and ultraviolet spectrometer, and giant unfolding solar panels to charge the onboard battery, Hope will study large scale atmospheric phenomena exclusively and won’t land on the ground. It contains no rover or lander, just an orbiter. Its goal is to investigate mysteries of Mars’ atmosphere and be the first probe able to give a full picture of the climate of Mars throughout the year.

The pictures Hope has taken so far are out of this world, showing 3 giant volcanoes in a row from space, including the biggest volcano in our solar system, Olympus Mons. Mars orbiters typically work as telecommunication stations for rovers to contact Earth. But Hope will be busy studying neutral atoms of hydrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere to help add to the research on how Mars could have gone from a warm, wet planet to the cold red desert of today.

Photo of Mars snapped by Hope.

About half of all missions to the red planet fail, so it’s impressive that so far all three projects survived the journey. The landing process is extremely risky, and in general there’s still plenty of room for some road bumps later in 2021. Assuming each project will survive the upcoming months, it’s going to be a big year for space exploration!