Perseverance Pays Off

As I’ve mentioned before, one bright spot of 2020 has been space exploration (for those into that sort of thing). Among other astronomic highlights of the year, three different spacecraft set out on journeys for planet Mars in 2020.

Now, 7 months later, the American mission Perseverance has reached its destination. Last Thursday, it successfully navigated the Martian atmosphere and landed with much fanfare on the surface. So, it’s no surprise that much of my boys’ Thursday afternoon was occupied in experiencing this event, and much of their free time since then has been spent reliving it in drawings, Legos, and conversations.

The history of Mars exploration is fascinating, and of course my kids know more about it than I. However, from their extensive knowledge and library I have picked out that the first successful Mars mission landed in 1976 – Viking 1, which also beamed back the first photos of the Martian landscape. Since then, over 40 more missions have been undertaken, some successful, some not. The first Mars rover, Sojourner, was deployed in 1997. This was followed by the Spirit and Opportunity in 2003, then the Curiosity in 2012. My kids and I find it fun to think of these little outer-space-grade remote controlled vehicles crawling around on Mars (very slowly, I might add… Curiosity’s top speed is 0.09 mph). Of these previous generation rovers, only Curiosity is still alive today… joined on the surface last week by the Perseverance. Though the two rovers are separated by 2,300 miles, my kids recently enacted a hypothetical meeting between the old Curiosity rover and the new Perseverance rover, which my wife happened to catch the end of.  It went something like this:

Perseverance Lego rover: Well, it was good to cross paths with you. 

Curiosity Lego rover: See you again in 3 years… if I’m still alive.

Perseverance: Yes, I know, you are the oldest rover on the planet.

[At this point in the conversation, Mom walks into the room]

Curiosity: Look! Good old mother earth!

There are a lot of ground-breaking aspects of the Perseverance, and there will be a lot of interesting news coming out of the mission over the next few months. Here’s a few highlights:

  • According to some people, this photo of the Perseverance landing may become the defining image of the next generation of space exploration (akin to the photos of the Apollo 11 landing 50 years ago). The photo, taken from above by the Skycrane descent system, shows the rover suspended within a few feet of the Martian surface.
  • Along with many other scientific instruments, the Perseverance is carrying a miniature drone helicopter, the Ingenuity. In the next couple months, the Ingenuity is going to attempt the first ever flight across the Martian sky (while the Perseverance takes a video). So stay tuned!
  • One of the goals of the Perseverance is to collect surface samples and cache them for a future rover to collect and return to earth for analysis.
  • A more recent goal of Mars exploration is to evaluate Mars for the potential for future human settlement. That idea may sound fascinating, but as I look at photos of the barren Martian landscape, I’m quite thankful to stay on my own planet and steward the life it possesses.

Photos courtesy of NASA

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