In their first press conference following Perseverance’s successful landing on Mars, NASA and JPL scientists revealed some information on where the rover landed and what to expect for the next several days and weeks as it begins its mission in earnest.
Pics or it didn’t happen
One of the first orders of business is getting some of the images, audio, and video taken during the landing back to Earth. For now, doing so requires using a low-gain antenna to transmit data to some of the hardware in orbit around Mars. Jennifer Trosper, the Deputy Project Manager for the rover said that the Mars Odyssey orbiter should have a brief pass overhead within the next few hours, followed by the Mars Trace Gas orbiter, which will have a longer overflight and grab larger amounts of data. Matt Wallace, another Deputy Project Manager, said that should be enough to allow NASA to release video of the landing on Monday.
Long term, however, communications will rely on a high-gain antenna that will allow direct communications with Earth. That will require pointing it, which means understanding the rover’s current orientation on Mars’ surface, which the team has inferred from the shadows cast in the first images sent down. Incidentally, those were taken with transparent lens caps on the Perseverance’s navigation cameras, so we can expect better images once those are removed.
Better images still will require getting the mast with the main imaging camera extended, as it (and the high gain antenna) are currently tucked in against the rover’s body in their in-flight position. Both of those should be raised into position over the next couple of days.
We have an even better idea of where the rover is than we do of its orientation. Al Chen, who led the Entery, Descent, and Landing team, said the rover touched down about 1.7km from the center of its intended landing area. He noted that it landed in what he called “a fairly rugged area.” Showing the image below, he said that the blue areas were considered acceptable for landing, yellow iffy, and red presented areas where there was at least a four percent chance of dropping the rover onto something unfortunate.
As you can see, the software managed to place the rover in a relatively narrow channel of blue surrounded by red—”we did successfully find that parking lot,” Chen joked. The rover also endeed up nearly perfectly upright, with a tilt of only 1.2 degrees.
While the rover itself is on excellent terrain, a field of rippled sand was visible in the first images to come down. “We might have to drive around the ripple field, Trosper said, “we don’t like sand ripples much.”
Remote software updates
Driving won’t happen right away. After spending a couple of days checking out instruments, Trosper said that the next big step is putting the driving and navigation software on the robot—software that was still being worked on while it was traveling to Mars. Obviously, this is done very cautiously, and the team expects to spend four days to update and validate the software before start any actual driving.
Once driving starts, the focus will be on testing out the helicopter drone that the rover carries. This requires a flat spot that meets a set of specific conditions. Once a site’s located, the rover has to drop the drone off and then move away before it can be tested. Trosper expects that it will take about 10 Martian days to get the drone ready to fly, and then 30 days will be spent testing and using it to explore the immediate surroundings.
It’s likely that, immediately after this process, the rover will start sampling some of the rocks in its immediate environment.
Ken Farley, a Project Scientist from Caltech, said the areas around the rover could be of interest, since there’s a clear difference between where it is and the dunes that the team wants to avoid driving through, and that difference lines up with indications of different mineral compositions in data obtained from orbit. Those sorts of geologic transitions can be informative about an area’s history, so the team will want to check that out.
But long term, the goal is to drive to what appears to be a delta to the northwest (in the upper left corner of the image at top). This is the product of water flows during the time of Mars’ early, wet periods, and thus should provide lots of opportunities for gathering samples for an ultimate return mission that’s still in the planning phases. That’s about two kilometers away from where the rover is now, so there’s plenty of opportunities for serendipitous discoveries along that drive.
But for now, the key efforts will involve checking out the equipment and getting the high gain antenna working.
Beyond all the plans for the rover, it was hard to escape the reality that all of this was made more challenging by running the whole operation during the pandemic. The mission control, instead of being packed with excited scientists and engineers, was sparsely populated by people wearing masks and maintaining social distance. Most of the team showed up in a massive Zoom group. Trosper talked about how hard it was to do her job while working in her laundry room (which ended up being needed for actual laundry at inopportune times) while her kids were in “Zoom school” elsewhere in the house.
In the end, while the rover was already in Florida for launch, the team decided to attach a plaque commemorating the pandemic. Maybe it and the hardware will survive long enough on Mars’ surface to remind someone that Perseverance was one of the bright spots of an otherwise difficult time.