Was there ever life on Mars ?

Rover to collect Red Planet rocks to answer a question for the ages

The rover exists for one reason: To find out if there was ever life on Mars.

NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on the Red Planet on February 18, 2021, marking a major step in a mission that has captured the hearts and minds of space enthusiasts around the world – and that will pave the way for human expeditions by the 2030s.

And, as with just about any space mission, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that will determine whether the mission succeeds. Perseverance’s job is to drill into the Martian surface to collect rock and soil samples. Those samples will be stored in sealed tubes and wait to be ferried back to Earth for analysis on a future mission.

“The whole mission hinges on the drill being able to do its job,” said David Appel, vice president of Defense & Civil Solutions at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business. “The launch could be picture perfect. The touchdown ideal. But, if that drill doesn’t work, then the mission can’t succeed.”

One major factor in whether the drill works is whether it’s clean. To that end, RI&S engineers helped design two one-time deployment doors for the Adaptive Caching Assembly, or ACA. Behind those doors is the bit carousel, a subassembly that serves up whichever drill bit the rover’s robotic arm needs.

“Cleanliness is a big deal in space,” said Anthony Bush, director of Civil Space and Weather at RI&S. “Making the doors that keep the drills free from dust or other particulate may not seem like a big deal. But if they’re not clean, they don’t work. And, when we designed the ACA doors, we had to consider a number of factors – from dust to Martian weather – and we only had one shot to get it right.”

The rover opened the outer door of the bit carousel's upper entry port on Sol 24 (March 14, 2021 in Earth time), which will allow the robotic arm to grab a coring drill bit. The doors had been sealed since final assembly at the Kennedy Space Center to prevent contamination.

RI&S software engineers also supported the development of flight software to manage most of the scientific instruments onboard Perseverance. They include

  • the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, or MEDA, which measures wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity and the amount and size of dust particles in the atmosphere
  • the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals, or SHERLOC, which is mounted on the robotic arm and uses spectrometers, a laser and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered as a result of being submerged in watery environments – an indicator of past microbial life.

Surface operations will last at least one Martian year, or about 687 Earth days.

“Scientists have sought to learn more about Mars since the first images of Mars were captured in 1965,” said Appel. “NASA’s Mars Exploration Program continues to push us closer to human exploration of the Red Planet.”