Mars is getting a new robotic meteorologist to prepare for future human exploration


NASA's Mars 2020 rover studies its surroundings

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has two wind sensors just under its mast, or “head”. They are part of MEDA, a meteorological science package that will provide vital data on the Martian surface, especially dust in the atmosphere. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Sensors on NASAPerseverance will help prepare for future human exploration by taking meteorological measurements and studying dust particles.

Mars is about to receive a new stream of weather reports once NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on February 18, 2021. As it scours Jezero Crater for signs of ancient microbial life, Perseverance will collect the first planetary samples for return to Earth in a future mission. But the rover will also provide key atmospheric data that will help future Red Planet astronauts survive in a world without breathable oxygen, freezing temperatures, planet-wide dust storms, and intense radiation from the sun.

The instrument underlying the meteorological data is called MEDA, short for Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer. Part of its goal is to collect the basics: temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure and relative humidity. Temperature patterns at the Perseverance landing site range from an average of minus 126 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 88 degrees Centigrade) at night to minus 9 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 degrees Celsius) in the afternoon.

Together with the meteorological instruments aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover and the InSight lander, the three spacecraft will create “the first meteorological network on another planet,” said Jose Antonio Rodriguez-Manfredi, principal investigator MEDA of the Centro de Astrobiología (CAB). at the Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial in Madrid, Spain.

NASA Perseverance Mars Rover SkyCam

SkyCam is a sky-facing camera aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. As part of MEDA, the rover’s weather toolset, SkyCam will capture images and video of the clouds passing through the Martian sky. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

But a key difference between MEDA and its predecessors is that it will also measure the amount, shape and size of dust particles in the Martian atmosphere. Dust is a big consideration for any surface mission to Mars. It goes everywhere, including spacecraft and any solar panels it can have. It also guides chemical processes both on the surface and in the atmosphere and influences temperature and time. The Perseverance team wants to know more about these interactions; doing so will help the team plan operations for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter as well.

“Understanding Martian dust is very important for this mission,” Rodriguez-Manfredi said. “Those fine specks of dust rise from the surface and cover the entire planet. We don’t know how Martian winds and temperature changes are capable of causing those global dust storms, but this will be important information for future missions. “

Even if those storms don’t blow as hard as you see in the movies (Mars’s atmosphere is too thin for that), they can create a thick blanket of dust. A global dust storm in the summer of 2018 ended the mission of NASA’s most experienced rover, solar-powered Opportunity, after nearly 15 years of operation.

Even on placid days, dust on Mars is pervasive and invasive.

NASA Perseverance Mars Rover wind sensor

One of the two wind sensors exits the mast of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. These sensors are part of Perseverance’s meteorological instrumentation, called MEDA. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

MEDA will be able to measure the details of the diurnal dust cycle: “We know that the atmosphere essentially raises dust at noon. Then at night, as temperatures drop, the atmosphere stabilizes and there is less dust, “said Manuel de la Torre Juarez, MEDA’s deputy principal investigator with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.” learn more because as our Mars missions get bigger, dust considerations may also become more relevant. “

Apollo astronauts have discovered that moon dust is a general nuisance, gets into helmet rings, sticks to spacesuits, and affects the cooling systems of spacesuits. The Apollo missions to the moon lasted only a few days. Human missions to Mars are likely to be much longer, so new data on daily dust cycles will benefit mission planners as well as spacecraft and spacesuit designers.

Cold and cloudy with a lot of radiation

Airborne dust also affects the amount of solar radiation that bombard the Martian surface. On Earth, our atmosphere, along with our planet’s magnetic field, protects us from radiation. But there is no global magnetic field on Mars and its atmosphere is only 1% of the density of Earth’s. So measuring dust and radiation go hand in hand, especially for the space suit design.

“Radiation is probably the most extreme condition for astronauts,” Rodriguez-Manfredi said. “Suits that protect astronauts from this radiation will be crucial.”

To this end, MEDA’s SkyCam will photograph and video the sky and clouds by monitoring the sky’s brightness in a variety of wavelengths to help us better understand the radiation environment on Mars.

“We will have our camera to monitor those clouds and the opacity – and the amount of dust or other aerosols in the atmosphere that could change the intensity of the solar radiation,” Rodriguez-Manfredi said. “We will be able to see how the amount of dust in the atmosphere changes on an hourly basis.”

The information will also benefit Perseverance research for the past life. As on Earth, if life had ever existed on Mars, it was probably based on organic molecules. Solar radiation can alter the traces of that past life in rocks, and MEDA data will help scientists understand these changes.

Lighten the air

The MEDA data will help another tool on perseverance: the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). MOXIE will demonstrate a technology that future explorers could use to produce oxygen that can be used for rocket propellant and for breathing. For devices like MOXIE to be successful, mission planners will need more information on what they are facing. “Do they have a clean vibe?” said de la Torre Juarez. “Do they have a dusty atmosphere? Will this dust essentially end up filling the air filters or not? They can identify the times of day when it is best to perform MOXIE versus those when it is best not to. “

To take measurements, MEDA wakes up every hour, day and night, regardless of whether Perseverance is wandering or dozing. This will create an almost constant stream of information to help fill the gaps in our knowledge of the Martian atmosphere.

Learn more about the mission

A key scientific focus for the Perseverance mission to Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and store Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA in collaboration with the European Space Agency, would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with the return of astronauts to the moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the moon by 2028 through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.

JPL, which is operated for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and operates the Perseverance rover operations.

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