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NASA Mars rover is launching today. Here’s everything you need to know

By Harriet Piercy

Jul 30, 2020

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NASA is gearing up to send the next solar powered SUV-sized rover named Perseverance, or ‘Percy’ for short, to Mars. This is the fifth rover ever to be sent to Mars, and it’s unlike any other that has gone before. Costing $2.4 billion, the vehicle has been specifically designed to collect video and audio as well as search for remains of potentially ancient microbial life—it also has the first spacecraft of its kind tucked neatly away in its belly, a helicopter called Ingenuity.

It is planned for the rover to drop the helicopter off, back away and watch as the newly born space explorer begins testing its flight. If successful, it will be the first controlled flight ever to be conducted on another planet, and may entirely change the way robots and humans explore these rocky enigmas in future—but the thin Martian air has just 1 per cent of the density that we have here on Earth, which makes flying extremely difficult.

MiMi Aung, the leader of the helicopter project at NASA states that “The first and foremost challenge is to make a vehicle that’s light enough to be lifted.” With all that responsibility, Ingenuity weighs just 4 pounds.

The little helicopter has four carbon-fiber blades, which are arranged into two rotors that spin at 2.400 revolutions per minute in opposite directions. These rotor blades have to be much larger and spin much faster than what would be required to lift a vehicle compared to our own atmosphere.

Perseverance and Ingenuity are two separate missions in one. While Ingenuity finds its wind, Percy the rover will be busy too—it is going to be carrying an experimental device that converts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into oxygen, as well as test five samples of spacesuit materials, including a piece of helmet visor, to see how well they endure Mar’s radioactivity. Perseverance will also be collecting data that could facilitate the prediction of weather on Mars, which is crucial to human survival on the planet.

The spacecrafts, although separate, will still be a team—two cameras on the underside of Ingenuity, one filming in black and white, the other one in colour, will be capturing footage of the surface below while Perseverance will be on the lookout with its own set of cameras, so that they can record each other. Inception, much?

“Imagine looking from Perseverance out at a helicopter that is flying around Perseverance, and the helicopter is looking back at Perseverance getting us images of what Perseverance is doing,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “We’re going to be able to see with our own eyes, with motion pictures, these kind of activities happening on another world.”

Everything so far is ready to launch, but anything could happen and there is only a slim window when this launch can be possible, which comes around every two years when Mars and Earth are closest to each other as they orbit around the sun. If NASA can’t launch today, there are opportunities to launch every day up until 17 August. But after that, the agency must wait until 2022 to try again. Fingers crossed though, as this mission may be the turning point of our futures in space.