I’m on my way to Mars! Well, OK, maybe not me personally, but my name is. Almost a year ago, I and a bunch of others signed up with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to have our names engraved on a tiny microchip that’s heading to Mars as I write this. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket is taking our names, plus the rover, Perseverance, and the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter to the red planet. All of us left Earth, July 30, at 7:50 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. We’ll be arriving at Mars and landing in the Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. Jezero was the site of a lake more than 3.5 billion years ago.
Perseverance will be in search of ancient Martian microbial life. Most of her instruments are for ferreting out Martian geology and that past life, but there’s one with a different goal—MOXIE. The Martian atmosphere contains mostly carbon dioxide. MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) will be endeavoring to convert some of that CO₂ into oxygen for rocket fuel, and air humans can breathe.
Ingenuity will test out flying technologies needed for flitting around Mars. If she can go aloft successfully, the data would be helpful for other robotic, flying vehicles that could be a part of future missions, helping to “see” terrain that is difficult to access from the ground.
Flying around Mars is very different from flying around our beautiful, blue planet. The atmosphere of Mars is 99 percent less dense than Earth’s. Ingenuity must be very light and have longer blades that spin faster than what would be required here. She was tested in simulated Mars conditions, but we have to wait and see if she can accomplish flight from the actual Martian surface.
Mars was very similar to Earth billions of years ago but lost much of its atmosphere. Why? The latest findings are that radiation and solar wind stripped it away. Earth has more mass than Mars and stronger gravity; thankfully, most of our atmosphere is staying put because of that. We need to take better care of her, though. For now, we can’t live anywhere else.