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We're Going to Mars!

Season 1Jul 21, 2020

In this episode of our Curious Universe podcast, join us on a journey to the Red Planet.

NASA's Curious Universe

Curious Universe: We’re Going to Mars

Introducing NASA’s Curious Universe

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About the Episode

We’re going to Mars! NASA’s Perseverance rover will head to Mars this summer to search for signs of ancient life. Christina Hernandez and Mitch Schulte tell us all about Mars Perseverance in this special edition episode of NASA’s Curious Universe.


[Musical Intro: Curious Incident Underscore by Price Reeves]

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:I had just started on the team. This was about maybe six months to a year in. The science office, they said, “you know what? We need to send the engineers to the Mojave desert.”

[Upswell in music]

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:There was one… I think this was towards the tail end of the trip. They took us to a site. They gave us a map. And they said, “Okay, you are now the Rover. And this is the only information that you have. These are just images, aerial images of the area nearby, go tell us where you would find evidence of life.”

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ: It kinda made me think like, “Ah, one day we could be walking on the surface of Mars and maybe doing the same exercise. So… that was kind of cool.”

HOST PADI BOYD:This is NASA’s Curious Universe. I’m Padi Boyd, and in this podcast, NASA is your tour guide!

[Music fades out]

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:My name is Christina Hernandez and I’m a payload systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

HOST PADI BOYD:Christina is one of the engineers that helped build the Mars Perseverance Rover. Which will soon allow us to explore Mars in a way we’ve never been able to before.

HOST PADI BOYD:…Ever wonder if there’s life beyond our home planet? Some key answers might be locked up a little further into the solar system, on Mars. And, over the past few years, NASA’s been building a rover that might just hold the key.

[Upswell in music]

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:When I started, we were still at a paper design and we were just focused on trying to understand the design and if it was the right design, and how we were actually going to build this beast of a rover.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:And, now, in the recent years, we’ve transitioned to what I love the most about engineering — building hardware, testing hardware, and eventually building the flight rover and flight instruments.

HOST PADI BOYD:It’s taken ten years to get the Mars Perseverance rover ready for launch day. This summer, the rover will embark on a hunt for signs of ancient life on Mars. The historic mission will be the first step in a round trip mission to Mars. It will collect rock samples for future return to Earth.

HOST PADI BOYD:The Apollo lunar samples, collected by astronauts decades ago, are still allowing us to make discoveries about the moon. There’s no telling what samples from the red planet could teach us.

And that’s why these samples are at the core of the mission’s four key goals.

[Music fades out]

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:So the first goal is, you know, did life ever exist on Mars? Right? Is there evidence of past life? We have so many great science instruments that are going to help us answer those questions.

HOST PADI BOYD:The second goal is to learn more about the climateon Mars. We want to know how it became what it is today.

CHIRSTINA HERNANDEZ:What’s Mars’ climate like right?

HOST PADI BOYD:We want to know how it became what it is today.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:And at the same time, learning about Mars’ Climate could also help us understand our own Earth climate, which is, you know, always important.

HOST PADI BOYD:The third goal is to understand the geology of Mars. The sort of thing that Christina was learning about on that trip she took to the Mojave desert.

HOST PADI BOYD:And then there’s the last goal.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:…Which is the goal that, you know, as a little kid, this is the one I always dreamt of. We are finally preparing for human exploration on Mars, right? It’s an actual goal, right? It’s always been a vision. It’s always been a dream. But, on this rover, it is one of our four science schools and so that’s why we’re going to Mars and that’s why folks like me are so excited for this mission, because this is cutting edge stuff.

HOST PADI BOYD:Perseverance still has a ways to go before it starts on these goals.

HOST PADI BOYD:In late July, the mission’s launch window opens.

HOST PADI BOYD: After leaving from the Kennedy Space Center, it will take the rover seven months to travel to Mars. That means it’ll get there in February 2021. At which point, it will have to complete one of the most difficult parts of the entire mission.

[Upswell in music]

MITCH SHULTE:…we’re talking about entry, descent and landing or EDL, the EDL process.

HOST PADI BOYD:It’s known as the “seven minutes of terror.” For that period of time, NASA will not be able to communicate with the rover. And the computer will have to move the mission through a perfectly choreographed set of motions…without any help from the ground.

HOST PADI BOYD:Mitch Schulte, the Mars Exploration Program scientist at NASA Headquarters, will walk us through what the EDL process will look like for Perseverance.

MITCH SHULTE:The entry part is when the rover first hits the top of the atmosphere of Mars. The heat shield then starts to interact with the atmosphere, creating a lot of friction, this creates a lot of heat, but it also takes some of the energy out of the spacecraft as it’s coming into Mars.

MITCH SHULTE:The heat shield eventually drops off after we’ve gotten through enough of the atmosphere and slowed it down enough. At that point, we have a parachute that deploys out of the back shell that opens up at hypersonic speed. So it’s going faster than the speed of sound. And we have a very large parachute then that helps us slow it down even further.

MITCH SHULTE:And then by the time that the parachute slows us down enough, the rover will drop out of the back shell that’s carrying the parachute. So we’ll be free of the parachute at that point. What will happen is that there is a radar onboard the rover that will detect where the ground is and fire the retro rockets that will finally allow us to get the rest of the way down to the surface of Mars.

[Music fades out]

MITCH SHULTE:So we’re going to a place on Mars called Jezero Crater, J-E-Z-E-R-O. This is actually a crater that was once filled with a lake. And it’s in a really ancient part of Mars, about three and a half billion years old.

MITCH SHULTE:This area of Jezero crater, which is now dry, there’s no liquid water in it now, but there’s evidence in the rock record that there was a liquid water lake there three and a half billion years ago. And everywhere we go here on Earth where we have liquid water, we find life.

[Music starts]

MITCH SHULTE:We in the Mars exploration program like to point out that we’ve been sending things to Mars for quite some time, and we’ll be happy when the humans finally get there. But we’ve got an entire planet inhabited by robots at the moment.

MITCH SHULTE:What we’re really trying to establish on Mars is whether there was life there in its ancient past.

MITCH SHULTE:So now that we’ve established that there was liquid water early in Mars history, we think that it could have been habitable like Earth was and is now. So we really want to get after this idea of establishing what kinds of places on Mars were habitable and whether life actually did get a start on Mars.

MITCH SHULTE:And so what we’re doing in sending all of this technology and these technology demonstrations and this hardware to Mars is really helping us move forward in the technologies that will enable humans to visit Mars.

HOST PADI BOYD:Now, you might be wondering: What will Perseverance look like as it’s roving around Mars? And what will it be doing? Well, It looks very similar to Curiosity.

MITCH SHULTE: Because it’s the same design. And the reason we use the same design is, one, because we know it works really well on Curiosity.

HOST PADI BOYD:Imagine a car-sized robotic spider with extra limbs and a camera for a head.

MITCH SHULTE:We have upgraded the wheels…It turns out Perseverance is actually pretty heavy.

HOST PADI BOYD:Perseverance clocks in at 2,260 pounds.

MITCH SHULTE:So that’s been putting some strain on the wheels. We’ve corrected that, redesigned the wheels. So the wheels are going to be much better this time around.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:One of the great things that you know we do have is data to try and understand the different types of terrain and also the slopes that the rover could see.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ: So the perseverance is equipped to kind of handle different types of terrain because of the wheels. And we even have requirements to say, look, we need to be able to travel upslope setter, you know, 20 degrees high, right? Because we need to be able to just be prepared for if there is something interesting that’s really going to drive us over there. We have to be ready.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ: And so there is you know, sands and dunes and then there’s also really rough, you know, brittle rock. There’s also rock that on curiosity caused a lot of damage to its wheels. And it actually drove a redesign on the wheels on perseverance. And so one of the great things that you know we do have is data to try and understand the different types of terrain and also the slopes that the rover could see.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ: So the perseverance is equipped to kind of handle different types of terrain because of the wheels. And we even have requirements to say, look, we need to be able to travel upslope setter, you know, 20 degrees high, right? Because we need to be able to just be prepared for if there is something interesting that’s really going to drive us over there. We have to be ready.

[Music fades out]

HOST PADI BOYD: Christina likes to think of the different pieces of Perseverance as they relate to the human body…

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:…So for example, you know, within the rover right within that kind of that big box…all the vital organs, all like the sensitive electronics that kind of give life to the rover, that’s where that’s kept.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:When you think about the rover, right, The rover’s kind of like a robotic scientist, right? We try and pack as much as we can of what a geologist would do, what tools they would bring, and put that on the rover.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ: We’ve got the brains, which is obviously the electronics and the software that control everything. We also have the neck and the head which on the rover, we call that the mast, the remote sensing mass and the remote sensing mass on Perseverance has all these really neat cameras that are gonna help the rover see. And ears, we have a microphone provided by the super cam team on the rover, which is like, a first and really cool. And, you know, obviously the wheels, right, we got a rover around and go check things out.

HOST PADI BOYD:And as Perseverance is doing all of this, it’s got to keep us in the loop.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:… and the way we talk to Earth is through our antennas. And so that’s what we use to speak to earth and also allow earth to say hi back and check in on us. So that’s kind of like the overview of the rover.

HOST PADI BOYD:It’s always exciting to get messages from the rovers through those antennas—receiving pictures and data as it explores the red planet. But this time, we’re hoping to get something else…

HOST PADI BOYD:We’ve sent rovers to Mars before. Two of which are still working. And each of them have helped us understand the planet a bit better. But Perseverance is taking us a step further.

MITCH SCHULTE:Unlike other missions that have brought samples back from celestial bodies before, like comets and asteroids, this time we’re bringing them back from a planetary body, Mars, that may have had life on it.

[Upswell in music]

HOST PADI BOYD:We’re trying to bring pieces of another planetary body aaaalllll the way back to Earth.

HOST PADI BOYD:And we’re hoping that those pieces, the samples, might help us answer a question: did life ever exist on Mars?

MITCH SCHULTE:We want to make sure that we do the best job in collecting these samples and we’re going to be doing it from 150 million miles away.

HOST PADI BOYD:It’s kinda like when Christina and the other engineers went to the Mojave desert and were told to look for rocks that might show signs of life… But instead of a short drive across California, we’re talking about a 7-month journey through space.

HOST PADI BOYD:And instead of our own two hands, we’ve got a car-sized, semi-autonomous robotdoing the job.

MITCH SHULTE:So they’ve built in a lot of technology that will enable careful handling of the samples and make sure that we get the best possible samples that we can get.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:…when you bring a sample back to Earth, you can give that sample to institutions across the world, have them use their labs, have them study it for decades to come, right. And it’s, it’s huge, right? We’ve never done this before. And it just, it kind of brings a huge smile on my face to think that this mission is a huge step forward in that direction.

HOST PADI BOYD:While sample collection is one of the most exciting parts of the rover’s mission, Perseverance will be quite the multi-tasker.

HOST PADI BOYD:One of its instruments will test out how we might convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. This could fuel future rockets to get them back to Earth…In the event that, ya know, we get humans there and they want to come home.

HOST PADI BOYD:Another instrument will monitor the weather on Mars–keeping track of temperature, humidity and dust size!

HOST PADI BOYD:Each of Perseverance’s instruments will help us achieve the mission’s main science goals.

HOST PADI BOYD:This will also be the first rover to bring along a companion…

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:We are going to set okay and I got it like really like you got to really process this. We are going to send a helicopter with the rover, right? o for the first time outside of Earth’s atmosphere, we are going to be flying on another planet. And so Ingenuity, which is our Mars helicopter’s name, is going to take flight once we land on Mars. That is pretty amazing that, ya know, some crazy team at JPL put together this helicopter. And we’re like, “Yeah let’s go and figure out if we can fly on another planet.” Because that is going to increase our capabilities even more… and so…

MITCH SHULTE:So we’ve built a little house for the helicopter on the underside of the rover. And so after the rover lands, it’s going to get lowered down to the ground. It’s folded up inside this house. It’s going to get lowered down to the ground on cables. The cables are going to get detached from the rover. The rover will drive away. And then the helicopter will unfold itself and be ready to fly.

HOST PADI BOYD:Ingenuity will be able to give us an aerial perspective of Mars, making observations that could tell us how we might use the planet’s resources one day.

MITCH SHULTE:So we have lots of cameras on perseverance, so we’ll be able to take all kinds of great pictures and probably some video of the helicopter doing its thing. We’ll also have a video camera on the helicopter itself. So it will be taking video as it’s flying.

HOST PADI BOYD:Imagine this. In the future, when humans are on Mars, they may call on helicopters like Ingenuity to scout out new locations and investigate cliffs, caves, and deep craters. The helicopters could even carry small payloads of supplies.

HOST PADI BOYD:But before any of that happens, a test vehicle has to prove that flying on Mars is even possible. And that’s what Ingenuity is going to do.

MITCH SHULTE:At the moment, we have five demonstration flights planned, each one a little bit longer than the last one. And so we’re going to first make sure that it actually lifts up off the ground and can actually fly. And then we’ll test and see how long we can do that. And then if we get creative, we can start to maybe maneuver it around a little bit.

HOST PADI BOYD:Mars Perseverance is a pioneer… a robotic scientist that will travel to Mars and attempt to learn its secrets.

HOST PADI BOYD:The rover will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center soon. The launch window is from July 23 to August 11, but no matter when it launches from Earth… If all goes as planned, roughly seven months from now, on February 18th, 2021, we’ll get some photos back from Perseverance… as it takes its first look at this foreign landscape. And it’ll be clear: we’re not in the Mojave Desert anymore.

[Music fades out]

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ: I keep kind of thinking about the launch and. I know I’m gonna cry I know I’m gonna laugh and jump and just be super excited because this project has really meant everything like everybody on this team has given it their all and you know we’ve all made the sacrifice of you know not being home on holidays, weekends. You give it your all because we know it’s going to be such a rewarding thing to see this thing launch.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:Perseverance means everything and you know, this was my first flight project. Right. I’ve never sent anything outside of earth before. I couldn’t have picked a better name for it for this personal and this team milestone. I mean, to me, Perseverance means grit and passion. When we say, “Do you have the right stuff?” to me, part of it is Perseverance. It’s, you know, understanding the sacrifices, understanding, you know, that everyone’s in the same boat, you know, being empathetic to your team members when they’re having rough days and building this robotic vehicle, that’s going to go and collect samples and do cutting edge science. And yeah, let’s throw a helicopter in while we’re at it.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ:Like this, this mission, this name, it, it manifests like the last five years of my life, like in all aspects.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ: You know, this is what engineering is, and this is what science is. And, you know, I couldn’t have done this anywhere else. That’s what it means.


HOST PADI BOYD:This is NASA’s Curious Universe. The Curious Universe team includes Klaus Mayr, Micheala Sosby and Vicky Woodburn. Our executive producer is Katie Atkinson.

HOST PADI BOYD:Special thanks to Ryland Heagy, Joby Harris, Jim Green, Andrew Good, and Liz Landau. If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a review, tweeting about the show @NASA, and sharing us with a friend.

HOST PADI BOYD:For more interviews about NASA’s search for life, check out the latest season of our Gravity Assist podcast, hosted by NASA’s chief scientist Dr. Jim Green. Search for it in your favorite podcast app, or at NASA DOT GOV SLASH PODCASTS.