The launch of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover marks the start of a seven-month-long journey involving tens of millions of miles of travel — but it also marks the end of an eight-year-long journey involving millions of miles of travel on the part of scientists and engineers across the country.
And perhaps the biggest marvel is that, in the end, most of them got the rover and its scientific instruments ready for launch while working from home.
Working from home has been a tough thing to manage for many of the businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing restrictions. It’s been tough for NASA as well.
“Putting a spacecraft together that’s going to Mars, and not making a mistake — it’s hard, no matter what. Trying to do it during the middle of a pandemic, it’s a lot harder,” Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said during a pre-launch briefing.
Fortunately, NASA and its partners could draw upon decades’ worth of experience in remote operations. “When the pandemic came along, it didn’t make that much difference in the way I operate, because I was already used to working remotely with JPL,” said the University of Washington’s Tim Elam, who’s part of the science team for the rover’s X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.
Once the rover is on its way, working remotely will become even more routine. “Pasadena is about the same distance away from Mars that Seattle is,” Elam joked.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket could send the rover on its way from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as soon as Thursday: Liftoff is scheduled for 7:50 a.m. ET (4:50 a.m. PT), and forecasters say there’s an 80% chance of acceptable weather. You can watch NASA’s live video coverage of the countdown starting at 7 a.m. ET (4 a.m. PT) Thursday:
The 1-ton, six-wheeled rover is due to land next February inside Mars’ 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater, at the site of an ancient river delta that now appears bone-dry. The top three tasks on the $2.4 billion mission’s to-do list are:
Identify the places most likely to hold the mineral and chemical traces of past microbial life.
Extract and store the most promising samples of soil and rock for return to Earth, inside a probe that’s yet to be built.
Test devices that could be used for future robotic and human missions to Mars, including the first helicopter to fly on another world and an experiment designed to convert the carbon dioxide in Mars’ thin atmosphere into oxygen.
Thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians, support staff and students have been working to get Perseverance ready for this trip to Mars, including hundreds in the Seattle area. Here are four case studies, focusing on Mars mission veterans as well as a first-timer.
Aerojet Rocketdyne: Building on 52 years of rocketry in Redmond
Aerojet Rocketdyne’s propulsion systems have flown aboard every successful NASA mission to Mars, and this time around, Aerojet’s involved in virtually every phase of Perseverance’s journey.
The company is providing four solid rocket motors to give ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket an extra boost, plus the main engine and 12 reaction control system thrusters for the Atlas’ Centaur upper stage. Aerojet also built eight stabilizing thrusters for Perseverance’s spacecraft, eight more thrusters for the descent stage, and the plutonium-fueled power source for the rover.
All of the 28 thrusters on the list were manufactured and tested at Aerojet’s facility in Redmond, Wash., which has been in operation since 1968. “That history goes back to the Boeing spin-off engineers who formed the company originally as Rocket Research Company, with the desire to focus on space production,” said Fred Wilson, Aerojet’s director of marketing and business development in Redmond.
Most of the work for the Perseverance rover was done long before the pandemic hit, but Aerojet is currently in the midst of preparations for future missions to Mars as well as to the moon. Wilson said about two-thirds of the Redmond workforce is working from home.
“Everybody who doesn’t have to be directly involved in working on the hardware is working from home,” he said. “But we have been able to maintain a high level of operational efficiency. … Our on-time delivery performance for the year is 92% out of the Redmond site.”
Wilson said not one of Aerojet’s Redmond employees has tested positive for COVID-19. “So, knock on wood, it’s been a very good success story for us,” he said.
Western’s Melissa Rice: Choosing the colors for Mars’ zoom camera
Perseverance is the third Mars rover for Melissa Rice, a planetary scientist at Western Washington University. And the fact that she’s based in Bellingham, Wash., more than 1,200 miles from Pasadena, means she’s had plenty of experience with working remotely.
It all started when she was a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech and JPL, where she worked on the Opportunity and Curiosity missions.
“Because the whole mission is so well set up for remote operations, often the science team would be calling in to our meetings from their various offices at JPL, rather than being in the physical room together, just because we have that teleconferencing capability set up so well,” Rice recalled. “So, when I left JPL and started my position here at Western Washington in Bellingham, it took quite a while for some of my colleagues to realize that I wasn’t just down the hall.”
That familiarity with remote operations has come in handy for dealing with the pandemic. “We’ve had lots of practice,” she said.
Rice’s team works on the rover’s Mastcam-Z imaging system, which is destined to become the first set of zoom cameras on the Red Planet. The system can capture wide-angle or high-resolution 3-D pictures and video in a variety of wavelengths to help scientists determine the mineral composition of Perseverance’s surroundings.
“My specific role on the camera team has been selecting the wavelengths that we’ll use to look for hydration on the surface,” Rice explained. “This will be the first time that we have a rover whose eyes are specifically tuned to the absorption features due to water.”
Her one big regret is that she and her students had to call off a trip to Florida to witness the launch, due to the pandemic. “That’s unfortunate, more so for the students than for me,” she said, “because I think seeing the launch live can be a life-changing experience.”
First Mode: Designing a fake rover — and protecting the real one
Perseverance provided a Seattle startup called First Mode with its first contract.
“The first activity that we did was to support the Perseverance rover, specifically its physical assembly and integration,” said Chris Voorhees, the company’s president and chief engineer.
When First Mode was founded in 2018, many of its 11 employees were alumni of JPL as well as Planetary Resources, a Redmond-based asteroid mining venture that fell upon hard times. Now the engineering firm is prospering, with a workforce of more than 50 employees.
First Mode’s engineers designed a rover surrogate, nicknamed the “Faux-ver,” which was used to simulate the real rover’s mass and thermal characteristics during the development and testing of spacecraft hardware.
Now engineers from First Mode are part of the team that’s planning Perseverance’s atmospheric entry, descent and landing on Mars — a key phase of the mission that’s known as EDL or the “seven minutes of terror.” In the months ahead, they’ll be supporting operational readiness tests aimed at making absolutely sure that nothing will go wrong. Or if something does go wrong, that there’s a backup plan for saving the mission.
Because of the pandemic, those tests will have to be run in remote mode. “That’s a real challenge, not just for us, but for the team in general, ” Voorhees said.
“What you really want is to have everybody in the room, but if you can’t have everybody in a room, how do you best represent that?” he said. “That team is working through the challenges of that right now.”
UW’s Tim Elam: ‘Chief spectroscopist’ for Perseverance’s X-ray eyes
This is the first Mars rodeo for the University of Washington’s Tim Elam.
Elam built his career as an expert on X-ray fluorescence at UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory. So when scientists and engineers were brought onto the team for Perseverance’s Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, Elam was a natural addition.
“All the rovers so far have and an X-ray-based instrument that measured the elemental composition of the rocks,” Elam said. “What’s new about PIXL is that it measures that not over a fairly broad area of a couple of centimeters, but in a very tiny spot. It’s about 100 microns.”
Spot-by-spot readings from PIXL’s X-ray fluorescence spectrometer will be assembled and matched up with images of areas the size of postage stamps to get a sense of detailed variations in physical structure and chemical composition.
The scale is such that scientists could arguably make out the fossilized remnants of Martian microbes. But even if ancient life isn’t definitively discovered, the data from PIXL — and from a complementary instrument called SHERLOC — will help scientists decide which rock samples are most worth bringing back to Earth for further study.
Elam helps bridge the gap between the engineers in charge of designing the instrument and the scientists in charge of looking for just the right kind of rock. “I don’t have an official title, but I like to think of myself as the chief spectroscopist,” he said in a video.
During a Zoom interview, Elam said he missed being able to meet up with the rest of his team in Pasadena. “We’ve learned to get better at doing it remotely, and the ability to have tools that involve video and simultaneous audio, just like we’re having now, makes a big difference,” he said. “But I still miss those interactions.”
He and his family had been planning to travel to Florida for the launch, but like Rice, they had to call off the trip due to the pandemic.
“My family has been following this just as much as I have. They’re interested in space, and they want to see what happens,” Elam said. “So I would say there’s a pretty good chance that this household is going to be awake at 4 a.m. on the day of the launch.”