Ep. 608: NASA Perseverance – The First 100 Days

As you all know, Pamela refuses to talk about any missions which aren’t actually doing science. Well, Perseverance has crossed the line, from fantasy to an actual working rover, scooping regolith and yeeting helicopters. What has the rover accomplished in its first 100 days?

Download MP3 | Show Notes | Transcript

Show Notes

Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover (NASA)

Mars Curiosity Rover (NASA)

Mars Sample Return (NASA JPL)

Microphones on the Perseverance Rover (NASA)



WATSON Takes a Closer Look (NASA)

What’s up with this weird green rock on Mars? Perseverance rover is trying to find out. (Space.com)

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Microphone Captures Sounds from Mars (NASA)

VIDEO: Perseverance Rover’s Descent and Touchdown on Mars (Official NASA Video)

Mars Helicopter (NASA)

Mars Exploration Rovers (NASA)

VIDEO: Interview: Dr. Michael Hecht, Making Oxygen with MOXIE (Fraser Cain)

Sounds of Mars (NASA)

Perseverance rover spots its first dust devil on Mars (Space.com)

Surviving an In-Flight Anomaly: What Happened on Ingenuity’s Sixth Flight (NASA)

Perseverance Rover’s Landing Site: Jezero Crater (NASA)

Stromatolites (Bush Heritage Australia)

Mars sample return (ESA)


European Space Agency

ExoMars 2022 rover (ESA)


Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services

Fraser:                         Astronomy Cast, episode 608: Perseverance Rover, 100 Days and Rolling. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know.

                                    I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute, and the director of CosmoQuest. Hey Pamela, how are you doing?

Pamela:                       I’m doing well. We didn’t get hit by tornadoes yesterday, which is always a plus.

Fraser:                         So far.

Pamela:                       Well, yeah. Well, yesterday is past, so I feel safe saying yesterday we did not get hit by tornadoes.

Fraser:                         Right.

Pamela:                       And spring is here, the yard is aflower with weeds, and we’re heading into Memorial Day weekend, which means all the yard work will be mine. How was your Victoria Day?

Fraser:                         Oh, it was relaxing, and we celebrated Queen Victoria in every way that a Canadian does, which is not one bit. So, yeah. But I didn’t do anything, which was nice. We camped. I didn’t do any work. I didn’t even do a show on the Monday. I took the whole thing off, which was great.

Pamela:                       That is awesome.

Fraser:                         So, I was rested and relaxed, and I’m ready to talk science.

Pamela:                       Good.

Fraser:                         Now, as you all know, Pamela refuses to talk about any missions which aren’t actually doing science. Well, Perseverance has crossed the line from fantasy to an actual working rover. Scooping regolith and yeeting helicopters, what has the rover accomplished in its first 100 days?

                                    I had a teenage daughter. I understand the terminology. I’m with it.

Pamela:                       You said, yeeting.

Fraser:                         Is that incorrect? Do I have to just say yeet? Is yeet it?

Pamela:                       No, you said it –

Fraser:                         Yeeting?

Pamela:                       You’re conjugating it correctly. It is a glorious concept, and it is exactly what this little rover has done to that impossible little helicopter.

Fraser:                         It didn’t. It didn’t. It gently placed it on the ground and backed away slowly and nervously is, I think, the better way to describe it.

Pamela:                       That’s true.

Fraser:                         Yeeting is not what happened.

Pamela:                       It’s true.

Fraser:                         Yeah. So, Perseverance. What is it?

Pamela:                       It is a next upgraded version of Curiosity rover. It’s built on very much the same hardware plan, but as happens when you get a few years from one design to the next, they upgraded the systems. And part of upgraded the systems meant it has a belly full of crazy robotics and electronics, and they’re gonna use that crazy belly to gather up samples of rock.

                                    It also is carrying the first ever microphone on Mars, which people are far more excited about than I ever dreamed.

Fraser:                         Like me.

Pamela:                       Well, yeah. It still caught me by surprise. And they have an experiment for creating oxygen. They have a laser and they are zotting rocks left and right. And then, of course, there’s the little Ingenuity helicopter.

Fraser:                         All right. So then, compare and contrast. If we had Perseverance and Curiosity side by side, and we were looking at them, trying to spot the differences, they’re the same size, right?

Pamela:                       They’re the same size.

Fraser:                         And they’re roughly built on the same chassis?

Pamela:                       Yes.

Fraser:                         Okay.

Pamela:                       So, the heads look very similar. It’s when you start looking at the arms and the underbelly that everything radically changes. It’s when you look at that underbelly and arm that everything radically changes. So, this arm does not have the little divot scraping machine that they have on Curiosity that they’ve been using to rove up to rocks and remove a layer of weathered rock to see what’s underneath.

                                    Instead, the arm had SHERLOC, which is an ultraviolet spectrometer, and it has a laser. And they are literally zotting rocks and listening to hear how the zap sounds, and using that sound, they’re getting an assessment of the density and other characteristics of the rocks.

Fraser:                         Whoa.

Pamela:                       This is not something I imagined. The is the moral equivalent of doing science by knocking on wood, except they’re zotting rocks.

Fraser:                         I had no idea that they actually had any kind of scientific purpose for that microphone. I just thought it was literally just to make some of us out there who wanted to finally hear the sounds from Mars happy. But no, it turns out they’ve got a job for that. That’s really cool.

Pamela:                       Yes.

Fraser:                         So, they’ve got a microscope on the arm.

Pamela:                       They do. Yes. Well, they also have the spectrometer. So, there’s the WATSON camera and the SHERLOCK spectrometer.

Fraser:                         Right.

Pamela:                       And between the two of these, they can take extremely high resolution images of that rock they are zotting, or they can look at how light reflects off of it to get a sense of what is inside, what the chemical composition is. And what’s, kind of, awesome about this entire set up, is they’re currently using it to explore what might be a meteorite from another world that landed on Mars. So, apparently we sent a rover to Mars to look at rocks that fell from space from who knows where.

Fraser:                         Right. Right. Probably Mars.

Pamela:                       So, we don’t know.

Fraser:                         Right.

Pamela:                       There’s this weird looking rock. It was one of the first things that people noticed looking at the images. It looks like it has a bunch of deep pits or holes in it, like a Texas holey rock, a piece of basalt. There’s meteorites. There’s lot of different ways to get this weird pitting texture to a rock. And the way it’s just sitting there, hanging out, looks like what you would expect from a meteorite hitting and hanging out on the surface while the landscape around it gets blown about by dust and wind.

Fraser:                         Right. I’ve seen that rock. We get that in driftwood.

Pamela:                       Yeah.

Fraser:                         Where you’ve got a piece of wood that been beetle devoured, and so has all these little drill holes that makes it look really pockmarked, and then it floats in the ocean and, I guess, shows up on your shore. Who knows where it started out? But yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about.

                                    So, those are the differences. The arrival at Mars went pretty smoothly. We saw much better video, photographs, this time around. We got to hear.

Pamela:                       And they got higher accuracy on landing due to different cameras. So, they actually have started using machine vision to help steer not just the landing of the rover, but also this is how they steer the helicopter in part. And so, as they were coming down, they were comparing the maps they had of what they expected beneath them, and steering accordingly to make sure they got where they wanted to go.

Fraser:                         Right. All right. So, now we’ve given you mostly an overview of how the rover itself differs from Curiosity. So, know that it’s got a microphone. We know that it’s got a helicopter. We know that it’s all of these additional things. So, what has this rover been up to?

Pamela:                       Mostly it’s been babysitting a helicopter, which is – when I scheduled this 100 days of Perseverance, I was really expecting a lot of Perseverance because back in the days when we had Spirit and Opportunity, they weren’t expected to last that long. They hit the ground, they roved, they made science happen.

                                    And Percy landed, and is like, okay, I’m gonna take my time. I’m gonna rove over to this nice smooth area. I’m gonna drop my helicopter, back away 100 feet. I’m gonna watch my helicopter. And so, it hasn’t done a lot of science other than technology testing.

                                    Now, some of that technology testing it’s done is truly remarkable. Another one of the instruments it has on board – and instrument is really the wrong word. Another one of the pieces of equipment it has on board is MOXIE. This is a system that pulls in the carbon dioxide rich air that is the atmosphere on Mars, and puts it through a lot of heat and a lot of pressure, and separates with an electrode the oxygen off, leaving behind an oxygen, a carbon monoxide molecule, releases that carbon monoxide back into the atmosphere and collects the oxygen.

                                    And the hope is that eventually, instead of having to send the 25 tons of air that astronauts are gonna need to survive a typical Mars mission, they’re gonna send a one ton oxygen creating factory. And MOXIE’s showing that this just is a feasible option for the future.

Fraser:                         Now, I’m going to shamelessly self-promote an hour long interview that I did on my YouTube channel and podcast, with the principle investigator of the MOXIE experiment. And so, if you want to understand the limits of this, how it’s working, what are the constraints, why even test it on the surface of Mars, and more, I spend an entire hour talking with the principle investigator. So, you can go into a tremendous amount of detail, and it was really fascinating. One of my favorite interviews.

                                    And so, if you aren’t already subscribed, I mean, if you’re subscribed to Astronomy Cast, but you’re not subscribed to my podcast, you might want to do that because –

Pamela:                       And that’s, Guide to Space?

Fraser:                         Yeah. Just search for Universe Today wherever you get your podcasts and you’ll find my 750-ish episodes as well. So, you know, in case you’ve run out of Astronomy Cast. Anyways, shameless self-promotion out of the way. Let’s talk about the microphone.

Pamela:                       So, it’s just microphone, but they’re using it in all sorts of different ways. They’re using it, like I said, to listen to the rocks getting blasted with a laser. They have listened to the wind rolling by. They have listened to the sound that the wheels make as the rover roves across the surface to see if they can get a sense of what that surface is like from what it sounds like. As someone who used to own Jeep Wrangler, I could usually tell what was beneath my Jeep when the top was off, by listening to the various kinds of crunching noises it made, and they’re doing science this way.

Fraser:                         That’s really cool.

Pamela:                       It’s just adding an additional sense to their little robot.

Fraser:                         I’m not gonna lie. I’m a little underwhelmed. Not by the microphone, not by the rover, just by the sounds of Mars. Mars, audibly sucks.

Pamela:                       It doesn’t have enough air pressure to sound good.

Fraser:                         Right. That’s right. And I think that’s the big problem. It just doesn’t have the air pressure, and so you’re hearing the laser firing. It sounds like a clicking sound.

Pamela:                       Yeah.

Fraser:                         Or you’re hearing the wind blowing or the rover crunching, and you’re like, is that it? Is that all we got?

Pamela:                       Yeah, yeah.

Fraser:                         So, I think we’re gonna need to see generations of audio engineers working with the sound to be able to do it. And so, when you say, no, no, it’s got a scientific purpose. I’m like, okay, all right. Then this microphone is redeemed.

Pamela:                       Yes. Yes. So, so far, they have zotted rocks. They have roved. They have listened to everything. They have taken pictures of dirt devils, dust devils. They have taken panoramas to catch themselves and Ingenuity off in the distance. And they’ve done a whole lot of babysitting Ingenuity.

                                    So, Ingenuity is the first vehicle we’ve had that has taken off and landed multiple times. And just in time for this episode, it made its sixth flight, and had its first fascinatingly, that looks how I would fly a helicopter, kind of moment.

Fraser:                         Yeah, yeah. So, let’s talk about all the various flights then, or just briefly, what has Ingenuity been up to overall.

Pamela:                       So, the target goal was to test that it was able to fly up to about five meters. That it was able to fly around. No more than 100 feet was the initial goal. And take images of what was below it. It is controlled off of basically the technology you would have in a cell phone or a golf laser distance indicator, and it uses a combination of all those accelerometers to keep track of what it’s doing. And then, it uses the images to get extra control.

                                    And it was those images that caused things to go wrong today. It dropped an image, and was then overcompensating because it didn’t know what it was looking at. But, what’s amazing is that they know that flying these things is hard, so built in all sorts of extra safety things.

Fraser:                         I would say, already it’s so exciting on just the fact that they’ve been able to make this thing fly at all in that think atmosphere. And it’s a fairly large propeller. It’s turning very quickly. The gravity’s a little lower.

Pamela:                       Twenty-five hundred times.

Fraser:                         And really its only job, it’s got two cameras, a battery pack, a little bit of brain power, and a little solar panel, and then everything else is all propeller. But just this idea that you can have an autonomous scout deployed with your rover. There’s no way this isn’t gonna be a standard that ride along with every single rover ever sent  to Mars, from here on into the future.

Pamela:                       It’s a buddy movie.

Fraser:                         Yeah.

Pamela:                       So, they can’t pick the helicopter back up. And it now has an extended mission, which means as Percy goes across the surface, it’s gonna have little Ingenuity flying ahead, lagging behind, basically flitting about keeping up over time.

Fraser:                         It is interesting though, this thing that you mentioned, that it’s amazing and wonderful, but it is almost turning into a job for Perseverance, and Perseverance has work to do.

Pamela:                       Yeah.

Fraser:                         So, what is the big – we’ve talked about this many times in the past, not officially in any one place, but the fact that Perseverance’s job is to search for the conditions for life in the past or the present. That’s its job.

Pamela:                       Yes.

Fraser:                         And when it’s not watching that needy helicopter, what has it been doing to further this task?

Pamela:                       Well, so far it’s pretty much been watching the needy helicopter. Poor Ingenuity doesn’t have the power or the antenna to be able to communicate all the way back to Earth. So, it’s a relay station for the helicopter right now, but this bleak task for the rover is allowing the mission team here on Earth to go, okay, you landed exactly here on Mars. I have all the imagery of Jezero crater, we’re going to plot the best path possible through the delta, through all of the different mineral samples.

                                    And that belly full of robotics that I talked about earlier, is because this mission is gonna go up to rocks, drill into them, use an arm to hold out a sample tube, let the sample that it’s drilling go into the tube, pass it into its belly where another arm is going to grab it, going to hermetically seal it, and then put it into longer term storage. And eventually, after enough of these little sample cups are filled, it’s gonna deposit them all somewhere like, so many science eggs waiting to hatch into new results. But we’re gonna have to send a second spacecraft to go pick them up and bring them to Earth.

Fraser:                         So, you say laying eggs. I like that because I’ve just been describing it as pooping. So, if you’re gonna say that it’s laying eggs, I think that seems science eggs.

Pamela:                       You don’t want to collect poop the same way. Not unless you’re that kind of a biologist, in which case microbiomes are cool.

Fraser:                         Right.

Pamela:                       Yeah, no. It’s laying science eggs. This is how I choose to look at it.

Fraser:                         So then, I mean, what are the – at the point that we’re at right now, like you said, it’s really been just in this test out phase. It hasn’t had a lot of time to do science. What are the things that now Perseverance is gonna be looking for that will really advance its mission forward, to give us some kind of concrete answer about whether or not there were the conditions for life on Mars?

Pamela:                       So, the area that it’s in is the most, yes, there was water here, kind of structure that we’ve put a rover in so far. There is a river delta looking area, and the kinds of minerals, the kind of organics, just a little over three billion years ago that formed this area, could have had life. And so, it’s going to be looking for the kinds of rocky formations characteristic of watery environments. It’s going to be looking for the minerals that form in areas rich in organics.

                                    And if we’re lucky, it’s gonna find things like stromatolites that say, for sure, yes, there was critters here.

Fraser:                         So, sorry. What is a stromatolite?

Pamela:                       Stromatolites are rock formations made out of bacterial mats. So, if you’ve ever owned a fish tank, you know that stuff will grow and form slime layers, for lack of a better phrase. And over time, these layers can build one on top of the other, crushing down, drying out, forming a rock. And stromatolites are the built bodies of formerly live things.

Fraser:                         Slime? Right.

Pamela:                       And so, these bacterial mats that layer up, die off, become fossils that’s about the most advanced we’re willing to hope for, for life on Mars, and it would be amazing if we found these formations that we know we have here on Earth.

Fraser:                         Right. I mean, Spirit and Opportunity could have seen a fish fossil on the side of a rock on Mars.

Pamela:                       Yeah.

Fraser:                         You don’t need anything really special to be able to do that. They didn’t find that. Curiosity would have been able to find that. It didn’t find that. So, Perseverance is taking that to the next level. And so, even if it doesn’t find the Martian fish, even if it doesn’t find the Martian bacteria layer cake – 

Pamela:                       Stromatolite.

Fraser:                         Yeah, stromatolites. It could find like, there was definitely water here, and definitely the place was seeped in organic materials, and you kind of had everything you needed to be able to have life. And then, let’s get those samples home to be able to test them out.

Pamela:                       Exactly. Many years of adventure to go.

Fraser:                         I can remember times when we were looking at Spirit and Opportunity, and they said, yes, water was – there are regions that once had water.

Pamela:                       Yes.

Fraser:                         And it could have just been a flood. Who knows? And then, with Curiosity it was like there were regions that had water for long periods of time. So, if people are just watching the news from Perseverance, what is that thing that says, science goal achieved?

Pamela:                       Oh, man. They have to build these rovers a little bit opened ended. I mean, ideally, they rove up to something and it has the exact composition that you would expect in a fossilized riverbank here on Earth. That maybe even, you see things that are clearly fossilized by volcanic ash going in and petrifying whatever used to be there.

                                    That’s probably a little more advanced than we can hope for, but going through and seeing the diversity of minerals that map the specific wetness, the specific temperatures that allowed those formations to take place. That we can do. We know different minerals form in different conditions. It’s gonna go out, it’s gonna go dig into those minerals, it’s gonna see exactly what is there, and hopefully, someday, something will go and pick up those samples and bring them back to Earth.

Fraser:                         Did you just briefly wanna touch on how the sample return mission will integrate with Perseverance. How is that gonna work as it picks up eggs?

Pamela:                       So, here’s the problem. They don’t have a second mission planned yet. They know someday, something is going to have to go back to Mars and very accurately land, get the samples, and then have the ability to take back off on the Martian surface, with the samples is has picked up, and we have no idea how any of that is going to happen. It is not currently a planned named mission with a window.

Fraser:                         We know a few things. I mean, we know the plan.

Pamela:                       So, the plan is to either send one or two more missions. One which is to go and pick the things up, and have them in its hot little robotic hand.

Fraser:                         The chase rover.

Pamela:                       Yeah. And then, the other is the launching come back vehicle. And it’s possible that that could be a single mission in two parts, or that it could be two different things that land. But we’ve never landed things side by side before, so there’s a lot to be learned in the coming years, but we’re gonna watch it.

Fraser:                         The cool thing about this is that it’s a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency. So, my understanding right now is that NASA is gonna build the assent vehicle, using something like MOXIE to help generate the oxygen for the fuel. So, it’s gonna carry its hydrogen, or some other fuel source, and then it’s gonna be able to make the oxygen on the surface. And that will test out what future astronauts are gonna use.

                                    So, that will land on the surface of Mars in the vicinity of Perseverance. And then, Europe is going to build the chase rover, which will land and return samples from that as well as the European Space Agency’s rover, which is gonna be roving in the same vicinity as well, which is going in two years. Got pushed back because of their problems with their parachute.

Pamela:                       And it will stay dead to me until it actually takes off.

Fraser:                         Yeah. Right. If you’re Pamela, you just heard wah wah wah, but for the rest of you listening, they’re planning to build – well, the European Space Agency’s rover is almost ready to go. And that’s launching in 2022.

                                    But then, the Europeans are gonna build the return vehicle, the sample return. So, the chase rover is European, the ascent vehicle is NASA, and then the return vehicle is European to bring all those samples back home. And that will be mind-bending to think that there will be a time, in the next decade, when we will have dozens of samples from the surface of Mars that were hand chosen by scientists. Very cool.

Pamela:                       If all goes well.

Fraser:                         If all goes well. Very cool. Thanks Pamela.

Pamela:                       Thank you, Fraser.

Fraser:                         All right. Do you have some names for us?

Pamela:                       I do. As always, we are brought to you by you. We are so grateful for all of our Patreons at patreon.com/astronomycast who make this happen.

                                    This week I would like to thank: Nial Bruce, Benjamin Davies, Steven Coffey, Kimberly Rieck, Naila, Dean, Neuterdude, The Lonely Sand Person, Joe Wilkinson, Sean Freeman who is  Blixa the cat, Frode Tennebø, Corinne Dmitruk, Gabriel Gauffin, Daniel Loosli, Kseniya Panfilenko, Alex Raine, Justin Proctor, David Gates, Arthur Latz-Hall, Eran Segev, Abraham Cottrill, Claudia Mastroianni, Kathleen Mattson, Matthew Horstman, Roland Warmerdam, Jeremy Kerwin, Saebre Lark, Tim Gerrish, Omar Del Rivero, Brent Kreinop, John, William Lauer, J. Alex Anderson, Roland McCoy, Mark Steven Rasnake, marco iarossi, Brian Kilby, Paul L. Hayden, Michelle Cullen, Aron Tannenbaum, Dustin A. Ruoff, Leigh Harborne.

                                    Thank you all so much for all you do. Because of you, we have Nancy, Beth, Rich, and Ally all running herd and keeping things running smoothly.

Fraser:                         Thank you everybody. And we will see all of you next week.         

Pamela:                       Bye-bye.

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