Perseverance to Mars

Jade Norton journeys from the first flight of the surface of Earth to the next steps humans may take on Mars, looking at the latest updates from the Perseverance Mars rover and its new technological advancements.

On July 30th 2020 the Perseverance rover was launched with a final landing of Mars in February 2021. Its destination was the Jezero Crater which it hopes to explore further. It is designed to create a better understanding of the geology of Mars and to seek signs of ancient life. Perseverance left Earth fully fitted with equipment that allows it to analyse and gather Martian rock and soil samples that will be collected for its future return. This the fifth rover to have landed on Mars and the first to have an additional Mars helicopter attached. This drone-like structure called Ingenuity has the sole mission of demonstrating the ability of powered flight in the thin atmosphere of Mars.

The length of the helicopter’s mission will be 30-Martian-days and it will attempt to test a new method of deployment to detach from the main rover, as well as assessment of if its solar-powered technology function and sole survival abilities in the extreme -90 degree C evening temperatures of the Jezero Crater. There are no scientific instruments on Ingenuity but if successful it will herald new technological possibilities for Mars exploration.

“Ingenuity is the first of its kind on Mars and as such it brought with it a piece of flight history, attached to a small cable beneath Ingenuity's solar panel is a tiny swatch of fabric from the Wright brother first flight”

Exploration of the surface of Mars began with the first Mars rover, Sojourner, which landed in 1997 and proved that it was possible to navigate the surface of Mars. The Perseverance rover has built on knowledge from all previous missions and it will collect samples and leave them on the surface for further collection but as of yet, no samples have been returned to Earth from Mars. There are future plans for collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) which could increase the possibility of sample return and to human missions. The ExoMars mission will be the first European rover and has a 2022 launch date but unlike Perseverance will only have onboard analysis equipment similar to the Curiosity rover.

Ingenuity is the first of its kind on Mars, and as such, it brought with it a piece of flight history. Attached to a small cable beneath Ingenuity's solar panel is a tiny swatch of fabric from the Wright brother's first flight. A swatch of fabric from the same plane was also brought along on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, as well as a small splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer. Although humans have yet to step foot on Mars, having the ability to traverse the planet with flight brings about huge opportunity.

The Wright brothers were the first people to achieve flight with an object heavier than air as balloons and airships did exist before this but they were the first to create a self-guided and marginally controlled aircraft. They used the information on aerodynamics available to them by Sir Georg Cayley and their engineering skills to create an aircraft powered by an engine and propeller that lasted for 12 seconds and covered 120ft.

“The privatisation of space-travel may herald the first human mission to Mars as a commercial expedition rather than a scientific venture.”

In comparison, the Perseverance rover travelled just approximately 471 million kilometres to get to Mars which took 7 months, an incomprehensible distance for the Wrights brother Flyer, but it was their curiosity that paved the road to this future. Ingenuity will mirror the first tentative steps of the Wright's brother's first test flight as it will first hover 10 ft above the surface for 10 seconds and if successful will pave the way for future Mars habitation.

Humans took their first venture into the sky in 1903, their second step outside of our planet in 1969 and now humanity is planning its steps onto new planets. The race towards the first person on Mars has no definite schedule according to NASA and government-owned sources, but there is a possibility it will happen in the near future if you look at many of the privately-owned space companies.

Many of the current commercial space-tourist companies such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX take their scientific roots from the Wright’s brothers. Virgin Orbit is the sister company of Virgin Galactic and has the goal to develop a mission to send the first dedicated commercial small satellite mission to Mars. The company hopes to launch these satellites by 2022 which would provide huge possibilities to companies and universities as this would open up the accessibility of Mars. Space X has the motto of paving “the road to making humanity multiplanetary”. They have been launching test flights of their pilot ship, Starship, throughout 2020/21 with the aim of improving the understanding and development of fully reusable spacecraft; “that are designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration interplanetary flights, and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond”. The first step in this will be a lunar fly-by mission in 2023 with Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa and the crew of dearMoon.

The future of space travel is a space to watch, as progression is happening at an ever-increasing rate. The privatisation of space travel may herald the first human mission to Mars as a commercial expedition rather than a scientific venture. This could change the pace of progression in comparison to that of the Wright brothers first flight which was fuelled by curiosity and later fell to commercialisation. The reverse may be the case for Mars, but depending on who gets there first Mars may become the next jet-set destination before it is fully understood.