The Mars Perseverance Rover mission is on its way to the Red Planet, carrying the Ingenuity helicopter set to make its first flight 50 to 90 Mars days after its landing, scheduled for Feb. 18, 2021.
The joint mission aboard United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral without issues: "It went right on time — it is on a trajectory that has been done with pinpoint accuracy," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the opening of the post-launch panel shared on YouTube. "The spacecraft rotates, so it's stable — and it is in fact on its way to Mars."
NASA's communications snag, Deep Space Network
There was a minor snag with the mission discovered during the launch: namely, mission control was unable to receive telemetry on the spacecraft by typical means, so they have to rely on the Deep Space Network — designed to detect very faint signals from deep space, according to Bridenstine.
However, the spacecraft is not the typical distance used for the Deep Space Network. "We have a strong carrier wave, a strong signal — but we haven't been able to lock-on to the modulation of that signal to receive the data," said Bridenstine. "This is not unusual."
"The one problem we had is we couldn't lock out our telemetry — and so [...] we have to modulate our telemetry on a sub-carrier, and then we have to demodulate that sub-carrier," said Deputy Project Manager Matt Wallace of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Demodulating Perseverance's strong signal
The Deep Space Network is designed to talk to spacecraft that are extremely far away — like Voyager, tens of billions of miles away. "To configure them to talk to a spacecraft that is this close to Earth is a little out of the ordinary," said Wallace.
"It takes us a little while to figure out how to configure the ground station to demodulate the signal," and receive correct telemetry from the spacecraft, added Wallace. Just before the panel, he received a text that confirmed the team had "locked down" the demodulation.
Time to Mars, persevering for Perseverance
It will take Preserverance six and a half months to the roughly 60 million miles (roughly 96.5 million km) between the Earth and Mars, according to the NASA panel during the post-launch conference.
Notably, the stakes for Thursday morning's launch were very high — NASA and JPL had to make a limited 2020 launch window. "If you miss this window, you [have to] wait a couple [of] years, and so it was critically important for us to hit this [window]," said Wallace. "essentially the Earth is shadowing the sun and so the spacecraft doesn't have a lot of power," he said.
Perseverance paves way for humans on Mars
When the comms issue surfaced, the NASA team did what it was trained to do. "You want to be a rocket scientist, that's what you do!" exclaimed NASA Science Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen. "We're not just scoring hole-in-ones every time!" he added. "We did not add data, we listened to what we had to say and communicated [the problem] like we always do [...] you have to have a little bit of nerves if you're in that business — that's why we love it so much."
"We are taking the whole world with us on our way to Mars," said Director Lori Glaze of NASA HQ's Planetary Science Division. "As part of that, we ran a campaign w JPL to invite the world to help us with the countdown to Mars," she added about #CountdownToMars.
"Increasingly, as we go to the moon with astronauts we [relearn] all these things that in the past perhaps we knew," but that with commercial partners we'll learn them in new ways.
"We're also going to learn how to build these capabilities that actually bring humans to Mars in the late 30s. So for us — [this] really opening up the spectrum on Mars exploration to a level that no other decade has done in the past."
Possibilities of life on Mars, Ingenuity's first off-world flight
Zurbuchen said the questions of possibly finding traces of ancient or present alien life keep him up late at night. "If you look at history — recognitions like that — new insights like this have transformed not only how we think about ourselves but frankly how we think and act as humans. The recognition that the sun is the center of the solar system, not the Earth, had tremendous impact," he said. "For me, the life question is really quite foundational. It's really the holy grail: when you go from n-equals-one to n-equals-many [instances of life in the universe], everything changes. It's like opening up a whole new building of exploration."
"It will fundamentally transform how we do exploration in the future. Now we know that there was at one point in time habitability on Mars — we don't know if it was inhabited," but if we found that it was, there would be much to discuss and investigate. "It will enable us to do more than we've ever been able to do before because there will be such a profound interest in going further and doing more," said Bridenstine.
As NASA's latest interplanetary mission — the Mars Perseverance Rover — is carrying the Ingenuity helicopter, set for its first off-world flight 50 to 90 days after landing. The spacecraft is due to land sometime mid-February 2021, after which it will help pave the way for science and human exploration of our erstwhile-habitable planetary neighbor, sometime in the 2030s.