Perseverance rover launches on its journey to explore Mars
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – At 7:50 a.m. EDT, the ULA Atlas V rocket lifted off on its journey to Mars with NASA’s Perseverance rover, and Ingenuity helicopter. The payload was placed into a hyperbolic escape orbit, and ultimately separated from the Atlas V’s Centaur Upper Stage at 57 minutes and 42 seconds into flight.
Following the swift but nominal launch, the Mars 2020 spacecraft appeared to encounter some issues with its communications and software. Initially, while the spacecraft was sending a signal to the ground, the antenna systems were not able to fully receive the telemetry data. For interplanetary spacecraft, NASA utilizes the Deep Space Network, a large system of large antennas designed for communicating in deep space. Because the spacecraft was still in close proximity to the Earth, the data signal data was too strong for the antenna network and telemetry data was not being received properly.
During the post launch briefing it was confirmed to be resolved and the antennas had been reconfigured for the data stream. Matt Wallace, Deputy Project Manager for Mars 2020 at JPL stated, “Just as the Administrator was speaking, I did just get a text that we were able to lock up on that telemetry. All indications that we have, and we have quite a few, are that the spacecraft is fine.” Wallace later stated that it was not an unusual occurrence, and that something similar had happened before with other Mars missions, such as Curiosity in 2011.
The second hiccup for the mission was the result of a software issue. Early on in its flight, the spacecraft entered a “safe mode” due to lower than allowable temperatures. NASA stated in a press release that this had occurred during its time in Earth’s shadow, and that the spacecraft has since been within allowable temperature ranges. The spacecraft will remain in safe mode until it receives new commands from mission control. As of writing, NASA is working to perform full health assessments on the spacecraft and is working to return it to a nominal configuration.
With the successful launch and release, the Mars 2020 spacecraft, which consists of the Perseverance rover (with attached Ingenuity helicopter), the cruise stage, which is used to contain and protect the components during their flight to the red planet, and the Entry, Descent, and Landing System, which is used to safely land the payload on the Martian surface via an Aeroshell, parachute descent vehicle, and sky crane, has begun its nearly 7 month journey to Mars.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine also commented on the launch, stating “With the launch of Perseverance, we begin another historic mission of exploration…. This amazing explorer’s journey has already required the very best from all of us to get it to launch through these challenging times. Now we can look forward to its incredible science and to bringing samples of Mars home even as we advance human missions to the Red Planet. As a mission, as an agency, and as a country, we will persevere.”
The mission is expected to arrive on the surface of Mars on February 18th, 2021, and will then begin its mission of 1 Martian year, or 687 Earth days, searching for signs of ancient life within the Jezero Crater.
Matt Haskell is a published aviation and spaceflight photographer and writer based in Merritt Island Florida. Born and raised outside Edwards Air Force Base and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, he moved to Florida’s Space Coast and began photographing and reporting spaceflight professionally full time in 2018.