2020 is a year that has tested us all. For some, it has been a test of compassion: do we or do we not pick up that extra roll of toilet tissue? For others, it has been a test living away from one’s family. But as we look back on March, peering down from our balconies or stepping out onto our front lawns, we see that in many respects, we persevered. The story of humankind has been marked by grueling challenges. Yet against all odds, our ingenuity has found a way to transform even the most dire situations into opportunities for progress. One need not be a historian nor an anthropologist to reflect on these glimmering realities; they need to simply look out of their windows and see a twinkling streak of light leaving our planet to witness human steadfastness. For this symbol of our persistence, waving a warm goodbye as it ventures off to make new scientific discoveries, is NASA’s latest mission to Mars.
Indeed, even at age 12, people from across the planet could see how humans are capable of extraordinary feats; at the very least, that is what Alexander Mather saw in NASA’s mission. Reflecting on what qualities define us as a species, this seventh grade student from Virginia proudly stated that “we as humans evolved as creatures who could learn to adapt to any situation, no matter how harsh”. For his insights, Alexander’s essay earned him the opportunity to name the Mars 2020 Rover: Perseverance. However, Mather was not alone. Accompanying Perseverance on a mission to reach new heights will be the world’s first fully autonomous helicopter; and in a manner similar to her younger counterpart, eleventh grader Vaneeza Rupani won the honour of naming it: Ingenuity.
On July 30, both projects will leave our planet and make a seven month journey to our celestial neighbour, Mars. Scheduled to depart at 7:50 AM EDT, the culmination of decades worth of work will help us uncover some of the red planet’s greatest mysteries: the existence of life, past or present. With all the work scheduled to be completed, this voyage is anticipated to last a minimum of 687 Earth days (1 Martian year) and is expected to land on February 18, 2021 on the chosen landing site Jezero Crater.
Based on orbital scans, its topology and that of the surrounding areas suggest that water may have once passed through the region. In fact, it is suggested that the crater itself could have very well been a lake. To confirm these hypotheses, Perseverance will search for evidence of clay and water erosion on nearby rocks and soil. If the rover’s results are positive, this means that water was in fact present; and where there was once water, there is also a high possibility of finding microbial life preserved in the now arid terrain. Helping the instruments reach the surface, NASA is equipping the package with a suite of precautionary safeguards. On the rover’s descent, a protective capsule and its lower heat shield will maintain all the equipment inside at a cool 10 degrees celsius until it has passed through the atmosphere. Once they are clear from atmospheric friction, the parachute will deploy and Perseverance will quickly begin photographing the ground below. The images will then be compared to the map of the landing site stored on the onboard computer, and if the images do not match closely enough, the rover will divert its course. Roughly 1.6 km from the surface, Perseverance will detach from its capsule and parachute and free fall for 300 meters. At a height of 1.3 km, the Sky Crane – Perseverance’s personal jetpack – will activate as a second high tech parachute, lowering its wearer to the ground. Having served its purpose, the Sky Crane will fly away, allowing the rover to conduct its mission undisturbed.
Once safely on Martian soil, the search for life will truly begin. Aiding Perseverance in its quest is an array of 7 extraordinary instruments which it adorns from head to chassis. Mounted on its head and operating as the rover’s pair of eyes, the Mastcam-Z guides Perseverance on its mission. A third camera can be found situated directly above them – the SuperCam. This eye, however, is special; Perseverance uses it to scan rocks and soil with lasers to find organic life. As we descend its long, tubular neck, we begin to see the first few components of the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyser (MEDA). Scattered across the mast and chassis, MEDA assists the rover to collect weather data such as: wind speed and direction, humidity, and air pressure. It also provides the added benefit of collecting dust samples for analysis. Nearby, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) makes its presence known. This device serves a crucial function in producing oxygen from the gasses found in Mars’ air – primarily from carbon dioxide. As we round the rear of the rover, we arrive at the Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX). Like the name indicates, this is Perseverance’s personal ground scanner; its job is to aid us in understanding what the ground underneath its wheels looks like, without having to blast a tunnel from the surface. Returning to the front of the rover, we can find a tactical arm outfitted with the final two instruments: the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) helps identify the chemical composition of Martian rocks; and the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) scans for organics and minerals affected by water. Keeping Perseverance company, Ingenuity is stored in the undercarriage until it is ready for deployment. Not needing a human pilot, the little chopper has the battery capacity to fly around for ninety seconds before having to call it a day. While it may seem to some that this length of time is too short, each take off puts us one step closer to understanding the feasibility of flight on Mars.
Equipped with this loadout, Perseverance will allow us to discern three key objectives. In addition to finding life, evaluating the planet’s habitability remains a paramount concern for NASA. Thanks to MOXIE and MEDA, the rover will test whether it would be possible for humans to live in its seemingly inhospitable environment. If these tools determine that we could generate non-toxic, breathable air and withstand the climate on Mars, generations from now, our not so distant neighbour may very well be our new home. Lastly, NASA aims to conduct extensive environmental analyses to gain insight into what the conditions on the ground are actually like. With the help of its instruments, Perseverance will observe seasonal changes as well as search for any evidence of liquid, subterranean water. During its travels, should it come across anything worth saving, Perseverance will gather it with its arm and store it in a cache. Then, on a future mission, the goal will be to retrieve the samples and transport them to Earth for a final analysis.
Truly, this mission presents an ambitious agenda for our six wheeled traveler and its propellor bearing companion, but should we expect anything less for such a tenacious duo? After all, both interplanetary delegates mark a milestone of human achievement. Yet, if we want to keep pushing the limits of the possible, we will need to ensure that future generations are ready for the challenges that lie ahead. People from across the world are full of potential, but much of it is lost to circumstance. Although everyone can look up at the stars and dream of one day visiting distant lands, very few have the skills to take that journey.
We believe that everyone deserves to make their dreams come true, whether on Earth or in the cosmos. That’s why we work hard everyday to build the school of the future. In 2020, primary education cannot be relegated to learning shapes and numbers, and the Mars 2020 Mission is a stark reminder of this. To excel in the twenty-first century, students must be taught to be digitally literate; and at GSGF, we want to help young minds all across the world master computer science and software development from an early age. With these key competencies, students will leave our schools ready to accomplish anything, be it an ingeniously programmed helicopter or the next perseverant rocket to the stars.
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