Rover – a vehicle for driving over rough terrain, especially one driven by remote control over extraterrestrial terrain.
Let’s take a step back and just take detailed look on what is a Mars Rover. Many Mars mission have been launched and in many configurations or mission type. I’ve laid out in my previous article the history of NASA’s Mars Exploration and in a way, recalling the missions that lead to Mars 2020 Perseverance.
With Perseverance, sometimes called Percy, still on 8th day of its 6 months journey to the Red Planet. Let’s take a step back and go through history on how The Mars Exploration Program evolved. Just like in a very long flight, one might think of watching movies, eat, sleep and from time to time, peeking
The 3 Mission types
Orbiter – a craft the revolves around the planet and take topographical assessment for Landers. Purpose also includes capturing high resolution images of the planet’s surface and send it back to Earth station for further study. An example is the Viking 1 & 2 missions.
Lander – This houses all the science equipment needed for the mission duration. They are intended to be stationary on the planet’s surface and capture surface, environmental, geological and even atmospheric/weather patterns. Since they are stationary, they are limited to data available in it’s landing region. This is where the orbiter plays a key role in identifying those spots where landing is safe for the lander and optimal data gathering will be achieved. Further surface study shall be augmented with the next mission type.
The most common configuration and is a wheeled vehicle to roam the planet’s surface. The first of its kinds was Sojourner. This a perfect way to augment the stationary disadvantage of the lander. In the early NASA Mars Exploration, they were launched and landed Martian surface together with the lander. An example of such configuration was the Mars Pathfinder Mission. A complex mission especially during Entry, Descent and Landing. For the Lander and the Rover’s structural integrity is taken in great consideration. Take a look on the video below on such approach was executed with Mars Pathfinder mission.
Since Mars is 300 miles from Earth and it would take 20 mins to reach. Automated approach is a necessity. So, to protect the structural integrity of the crafts, a landing cushion was tested and so airbags were implemented.
Basically, a Rover is a terrain based and remotely controlled from Earth base station. Working in tandem with the lander or independently receiving and transmitting communications to an orbiter for transmission to Earth. Now this is not your typical remote controlled wheeled toy where you can just throttle the motors in any direction. Take note it will take 20 mins for each direction signals to reach Mars. You might be thinking of “stepping up the gas” for some speed is fun. But, not when your toy is hundreds of miles away and only to find out 20 mins later that you ran into a cliff. Or, ram a Martian rock.
Not on its own. As previous missions paved way for some cool tech for sending and landing them on the surface of Mars, the Rover’s mission evolves as well. The science study requires more area to cover and the only we could achieve that coverage, is with a wheeled vehicle. Various progression have been sent successfully. We have Spirit and Opportunity, identical rovers. Then we have Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity and now its twin Perseverance of the Mars 2020 mission.
You might be asking, why those two sets of Rovers are identical in nature? I’m no NASA/JPL expert. But, the obvious reason is that. They were built with spares in mind. So, what perfect way to build the supply chain of parts? Is to build spares, is, just like building another. It’s economic in a way and of course, contingency. A lot of scenarios that could go wrong on each mission. And there are unknowns each time. Building that plan B is logical.
Taking it further
Although, Mars is half the size(diameter) of Earth. There’s a lot of land to cover. The need to larger area to traverse grows as the science experiment data demand grew and will be even greater in the future. Technology progress and along with it, we are uncovering more unknowns from the previous missions. Together with Perseverance is a clever way of covering much area and faster. A better way to do it is, with a drone. So, we have the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity.
We are indeed in an exciting days of space exploration. There are tons of information still waiting for us to uncover. Mars 2020 Perseverance will a step forward for humans in understanding our closest planet. Hopefully, could unlock some of the questions we have with the Red Planet. I’m one of those who are very optimistic that these mission, however difficult, will be instrumental for future Mars Exploration and even human setting foot.
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Cool toys for kids and the kids at heart. Fun and great learning experience for the whole family.