June 08, 2022
Narrator: What would it take to hold a piece of the planet Mars in your hand?
Narrator: Going to Mars is difficult and dangerous, and humans have never made the journey although many dream of being the first to wander the vast deserts of this alien world.
Mars has already come to Earth, in the form of meteorites that traveled the millions of miles of space between Earth and Mars. We can tell these space rocks originally came from Mars because of their mineralogy, and some even contain tiny pockets of gas that match the Martian air. These rocks were excavated through an explosive event, when a large meteorite slammed into Mars and carved out an impact crater.
sound effect: meteorite hits Mars
Narrator: Some of the debris thrown outward by this cosmic bomb escaped the planets gravity, and wandered the solar system for millions of years until eventually, randomly, colliding with our planet, enduring a fiery entry through our atmosphere before falling to Earth.
(1:07) sound effect: meteorite falls to Earth
Narrator: These pummeled pieces of Mars have been much changed by their travels, and only the toughest rocks survive the trip.
Since the 1970s, plans to gather a collection of different rocks on Mars and bring them to Earth in a more careful, deliberate way known as Mars Sample Return have been developed by the U.S. and other space-faring nations, only to be canceled due to the costs and complexity of such an effort.
Over the same time period, NASA used orbiting spacecraft, landers, and eventually rovers to explore Mars, revealing new insights well beyond what can be gleaned from meteorites or by studying the planet from afar with telescopes. But as good as these close-up views have been, instruments sent on space missions are limited in size, weight, and capability compared to laboratories on Earth.
NASAs latest Mars rover the Mars 2020 missions Perseverance is a step toward finally realizing the Mars Sample Return goal of the past fifty years. Heres deputy project scientist of the mission, Katie Stack Morgan.
(2:24) Katie Stack Morgan: Perseverance's job in that effort is to collect the rock and soil samples and to seal them up and keep them safely on the surface of Mars. Perseverance is not responsible for bringing those samples back to Earth; the rover's job is to collect them.
And we're really hoping that the samples that come back to Earth at some point in the future, if that happens, give us the best chance of answering the question, Was there once ancient life on Mars? And so, we are selecting our samples and looking for the kinds of rocks that will give us the best chance of accomplishing that goal and answering that very important question.
Narrator: The Mars 2020 mission is especially targeting often-fragile sedimentary layers, like those laid down in lakes and river deltas, where, on Earth, life is abundant and signs of ancient life tend to be well-preserved.
(3:16) As mission scientists use Perseverance to capture bits of rock that are artifacts of a bygone era, when Mars was more Earth-like billions of years ago, NASA is still working on plans to retrieve all these preserved moments in time, and hopes to bring them to Earth in the next decade. And so, the rovers rock gathering is an exercise in optimism. In a nod to that, the test rover used on Earth to troubleshoot problems Perseverance may encounter on Mars is named OPTIMISM. Thanks to NASAs love of acronyms, in this case optimism also stands for Operational Perseverance Twin for Integration of Mechanisms and Instruments Sent to Mars.
The qualities of perseverance and optimism were much needed in the run-up to the launch of the Mars 2020 mission. When the rover and space capsule were being put together in the cleanroom that keeps it free of Earthly microbes, a virus was about to make a big impact on our world.
(4:20) NBC news reporter Tom Costello: With health officials urging the public to practice social distancing to slow down the outbreak, communities around the country now taking action.
Katie Stack Morgan: We had just a lot of concern once the COVID situation came into being about whether we would make our launch date. And I think we're so fortunate, because if we had been in the situation maybe one or two months earlier, I'm not sure we would have made it to the launch pad. As it was, only a couple of things needed to happen before the rover was ready to go. And so, we were able to have a skeleton crew of team members come in and do that work.
Narrator: One of the members of this Mars 2020 COVID crew was the deputy mechanical chief engineer for the mission, Mohamed Abid. While most people were working from home, he helped put the finishing touches on the spacecraft at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, and then prep it for launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Mo Abid: We have all this hardware that we need to assemble and launch, so everybody's trying to figure it out, and seeing how can we protect the team, while at the same time getting the right people on site. So I had to travel a few times, but because of the travel restriction that we have, we cannot take commercial airlines. So we used the NASA Gulfstream, the G3, to shuttle critical personnel.
Mo Abid: And so, that was really cool to go into this VIP you know, it only happens in the movies, right? Were going down to the hangar, getting into this small airplane with everybody in their own big chair, and then going for a five-hour flight, and then landing! Landing on the space shuttle runway. I think that was really awesome (laughs). I felt important for a few minutes, you know?
sound effect: jet landing on runway
Mo Abid: So, while it's really sad what's going on with all the COVID deaths and whatnot that's going on throughout the world, and we're all taking our precautions, at the same time, we're trying to get to the finish line, and time is ticking. We absolutely have to launch in this small window or were gonna wait for another couple more years.
Narrator: If the mission missed its one-month launch window in the summer of 2020, it would mean waiting another 26 months to try again, due to the way the planets orbit the Sun. In addition to slowdowns caused by the pandemic, technical glitches at the launch pad created more delays.
Narrator: As the Atlas V rocket that would blast Perseverance off Earth was being assembled, the crane that hoists the heavy rocket parts into place experienced a fault that took several days to fix. The launch date slipped again because of concerns over potential contamination of a ground support line, and then a misbehaving liquid oxygen sensor line pushed the launch day back even more.
Launch Control: Status Check. Go Atlas. Go Centaur. Go Mars 2020.
Narrator: The missions launch on July 30, 2020 overcame all the forces attempting to hold it back, including gravity. The Perseverance rover, tucked inside its capsule at the top of the rocket, was sporting a small COVID plaque featuring the Greek symbol of healing a snake wrapped around a rod. This plaque added a space-age twist to the ancient symbol, depicting planet Earth atop the rod, and a little spacecraft circling our planet and heading to Mars.
(7:44) Katie Stack Morgan: It was a great tribute. And in some ways, great timing, I think, for the mission's successful launch and landing in a time when people were really looking for something to be excited about, and looking for a success. We had so many people pulling for us, and maybe even more than we normally would have because of the circumstances.
Narrator: Mere weeks before COVID-19 changed the world, Alex Mather, a 13-year-old from Virginia, won NASAs student contest to name the rover. While his words seem to eerily predict the pandemic, they reflect on how many challenges always have to be overcome to make space exploration possible.
(8:27) Alex Mather: We as humans evolved as creatures who could learn to adapt to any situation, no matter how harsh. We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere. We, not as a nation, but as humans, will not give up. The human race will always persevere into the future.
Narrator: Welcome to On a Mission, a podcast of NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Im Leslie Mullen, and in this fourth season of the podcast, were following in the tracks of rovers on Mars. This is episode six: The Promise of Perseverance.
Narrator: The Perseverance rover was modeled after the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, and over the past decade has found evidence the planet once had long-standing bodies of water and an environment ripe for life as we know it. Because Curiosity has a different goal than Perseverance, some instruments are different, but youd have a hard time telling the two rovers apart.
Mo Abid: When you look far away, Perseverance and Curiosity look virtually the same, a similar shape, even color, right? But as you get closer and closer, you'll notice a lot of interesting differences. And then once you open the hood, if you will, now youre seeing other hardware going on. Youve got all these tubes, you know, weve got 43 tubes, like, what is that for?
(10:34) Narrator: Although Perseverance is storing Mars samples in tubes, rather than breaking samples down to examine them like Curiosity does, Perseverance still needs to figure out which rocks are worth taking. So Perseverance includes some of Curiositys instruments, like a laser in its head that zaps rocks to figure out what theyre made of, as well as new tools of analysis, like a spectrometer called SHERLOC with a sidekick camera WATSON.
Perseverances power source, a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG, originally had been built as a backup part for Curiosity. The wheels on Perseverance were reconfigured after Curiositys aluminum wheels developed holes and tears from driving over sharp rocks. Perseverances wheels are thicker and taller, with closely-spaced traction cleats that provide extra defense against the rugged terrain.
Like Curiosity, Perseverance has a drill at the end of a hefty arm, along with other instruments held in a block-like fist called a turret. Perseverances rotary percussive drill not only burrows into rock to collect a core, it has a bit with teeth that can gnaw away at a rocks surface to do a first check on whether the inside of a rock differs from its outside. Perseverance also blows puffs of nitrogen gas to clear off debris that accumulates from abrading or drilling rocks.
(11:47) sound effects: drill, rock abrasion, puffs of gas
Narrator: These extra abilities make Perseverances arm and turret heavier than Curiositys, and overall, Perseverance weighs 277 pounds, or 126 kilograms more than the nearly-one-ton Curiosity.
(12:25) Mo Abid: Now when you talk about a heavier rover, when you change something, there's always a chain reaction. It's not, add a few pounds here and there, therefore, everything will be the same. No. You want to tune it really to the ounce level. When you build stuff on Earth, two, three, four kilos higher, eh, who cares? You know, what is a couple of kilos between friends, right? To launch stuff to space, every single ounce counts.
Narrator: After every ounce is negotiated and the rover is carefully put together, everything is tested to make sure it works and can take the stress of spaceflight.
Mo Abid: One of my favorite things that happens in a day [is] when someone tells me, Hey, Mo, we have an issue got a problem here that we need to understand or resolve. My general reaction will be, This is really great. Now we are going to learn something new today. So, it's something that I live for.
And fortunately, we find surprises. If there's no surprises in testing, that means we're doing something wrong. The testing is super well, everything is going swimmingly, I get really nervous (laughs). So like, Nothing? Are you guys sure? What are we missing here? Because the minute you leave the launchpad, we're done. You got what you got.
(13:32) Yes, weve got operational work-arounds. We can do a lot of crazy stuff, as youve seen [with] prior rovers, you know, they failed different hardware, there's always a lot of creativity going on with the team on how can we make something work. But at the end of the day, you want to fail on Earth. You don't want to fail on Mars, right? On Earth, we can always recover. We can always figure out how to fix it. So if you fail, that's actually succeeding.
Narrator: One Mars 2020 test succeeded by showing a dangerous weak point in the space capsule that would carry the rover from Earth to Mars.
Mo Abid: There's one phone call that I'll never forget. Its a call I got from my colleague from Lockheed Martin. He said, When we lifted the heat shield from the testing stand, we found a crack along the whole circumference of the heat shield.
Mo Abid: Now, the heat shield is a big deal. I mean, this is basically what protects Percy (Perseverance) from cooking, frying, as we enter Mars atmosphere. The temperature on the outside can go as high as 1300 degrees Celsius. That's almost the melting point of stainless steel, which is about 14, 1500. But at the same time, Percy inside is enjoying like a normal South California beach temperature day, you know, 20, 30 degrees Celsius. So that's a lot to ask from a heat shield.
When we enter the Mars atmosphere, we come in at really high speed 20,000 kilometers per hour about four times the speed of a bullet.
sound effect: speeding through the atmosphere
Mo Abid: And even though Mars has a really thin atmosphere, it has sufficient density that it will decelerate the vehicle. As it decelerates, it pushes the heat shield against the back shell, and so you get dynamic pressure.
(15:08) sound effect: atmospheric friction
Mo Abid: And that's not for too long, really, for a few seconds, but it's sufficient to generate high loads, about 12, 13 Gs or so. There's really different ways of mimicking those loads on the heat shield. So you can take the heat shield and you put it on a flat table. And then you pull pressure from the inside of the heat shield. So now the atmospheric air acts like your load. Or the other way we can do it is that you constrain it to one side, and the other side you put like an inflatable mattress, if you will. And as you inflate it, it pushes on the heat shield. It mimics entry loads.
sound: heat shield test
Mo Abid: So as we were running the test, we were hearing some noise, you know, cracks. You would expect something like that during this test.
sound: heat shield test
Mo Abid: So, we finished the test campaign, but one thing left was we needed to do visual inspection to make sure that nothing had broken, and we need to remove this air bag that wed inflated to get the loads. So the team [at] Lockheed, they were removing the heat shield from this bag, and then when they lift it, they saw this crack throughout the circumference.
(16:28) sound effect: heat shield crack
Mo Abid: So it was a huge deal. This can delay launches. And it was one of the most puzzling problems we've seen. We could not find one single root cause. So typically, when there are anomalies, you like to find that one thing, you know, it's like, Yes, that's exactly what happened. That's your fault, you little bolt. Or whatever it is, Your fault. But for this one, man, it was all over the place, its like, Oh yeah, maybe this, maybe that. But we couldn't find the one smoking gun, and we're racing against the clock. We need to make it to the launch date.
Narrator: The team built a new heat shield that addressed suspected causes of the crack, tweaking things like how fast theyd cured the composite materials, and adjusting densities throughout the honeycomb structure of the heat shields core. Fortunately, their next-generation heat shield passed all the tests.
The cracked heat shield had been dj vu for Mo, whod been a part of NASAs space shuttle program when damaged heat tiles on the shuttles wing led to the tragic loss of seven astronauts.
(17:35) NBC news reporter: The Space Shuttle Columbia had been scheduled to land in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center at 9:16 a.m. East Coast time, so it has now been almost two hours since they lost contact. Almost immediately, there were reports of explosions
Mo Abid: It was the straight flashback. When we broke the shield, obviously it's load issues, it's the way we tested this, all of that, but still the intent, the use of it is really a thermal protection scheme. But definitely I had that flashback about what happened back then.
NASA Administrator Sean OKeefe: This is indeed a tragic day for the NASA family, for the families of the astronauts who flew on STS-107, and likewise, tragic for the nation.
Narrator: Mos emotional connection to the space shuttle began when he was young.
Mo Abid: I was always fascinated by the space shuttle program and just by the space shuttle itself. I think the space shuttle, it's one of the most beautiful birds ever created by mankind. The astronaut suiting up and driving down to the launch pad that was always really exciting to watch. And then you've got the countdown. Can you believe counting from ten to zero is so exciting for people?
Launch Control: Go for main engine start, T-minus 10, nine, eight, seven
Mo Abid: I mean, I'm counting from 10 to zero. (laughs) Yeah! So thrilling! And yet, youre always waiting for that, liftoff!
(19:07) Launch Control: two, one, zero, and liftoff!
Mo Abid: The whole liftoff, the solid rocket booster separations, the whole sequence of events of going all the way up to peaceful space. It was something to be really, really thrilled about watching.
I grew up in Tunisia, in Sfax, and back in the 80s, late 70s, a space program, it wasn't really part of the national interest. You need resources. It's not cheap, space, right? And so, like many other countries, Tunisia had different priorities. Space is not one of them. There are other issues to work out for the country. So it was always something exciting to watch, and that was it.
Launch Control: and liftoff, liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.Houston, ground control.Roger roll Challenger.
(20:01) Mo Abid: So, I was watching another space shuttle launch, and I remember this day very, very well. Thats when we had the Space Shuttle Challenger accident.
Launch Control: Challenger, go for throttle up.Eyewitness news ABC7 NY reporter: Less than two minutes after liftoff, the rocket speeding the shuttle at 2,000 miles an hour exploded. On the ground, spectators not certain of what they saw. And the understated explanation from NASA:Launch Control: Obviously, a major malfunction.
Mo Abid: The disaster rocked the whole world, you know, it was a huge tragedy. It's one of those that shows how space is really difficult. But it really got me thinking. I was like, This is something important for us, as humans.
And so, I start brewing and basically became determined to join, in one way or another, I need to find my way to be part of the NASA family. I wanted to be part of this team that make crazy stuff happen, like the shuttle at the time, and others. And then, prepare for issues that basically wouldn't allow the space shuttle incident like happen.
(21:08) So that was really the spark or the trigger. Now, the interaction with friends and teachers was always was like, You're dreaming. You're never going to make it. And some family members are like, Eh, forget about it. No way. Stay where you are. Become a medical doctor. So it was virtually impossible, the way it had been portrayed to me.
And when you say somethings impossible to do, that now becomes my determination. (laughs) No, you can't go there. Well, now I want to go there, just because you told me not to. So that was really huge motivation. One of my best favorite quotes says, It costs nothing to dream, but everything not to.
Narrator: In pursuit of his dream, Mo went to college in France, and then on to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to earn his PhD. When he came to the U.S. for his studies in aerospace and mechanical engineering, he also worked on his English, with a little help from American television.
(22:05) Mo Abid: In Tunisia, English is kind of a third language, eventually, if you want to take it. I mean, French is our second language because of the French colony. So I took a class or two of English. It was more, you know, What's this? What's that? Nothing really spectacular. And I was really, really, really bad at it.
So coming to the U.S., I've got a very basic notion of English. But in any language, I found that there are a few key words you need to learn. I'm not going to talk about the bad words, the swear words, which everybody seems to learn those. Let's ignore those for a second. When you talk about English, the word stuff and the word cool and the word thing, are really, really important words. Give me that stuff. Now, I was watching Beavis and Butthead and (laughs)
Butthead: Whoa! That was cool!
Mo Abid: So at the time when I came in, it was popular, and I mean, you can have a whole conversation with cool and stuff, you know? Especially in L.A., right? Oh, that's cool. Yeah, cool stuff.
(23:01) Butthead: Hey Beavis, were the last people on Earth.Beavis: Whoa, really?Butthead: We can go anywhere and do anything.Beavis: Yeah! Yeah, anything!Butthead: Theres no one to tell us what not to do.Beavis: Yeah, theres nobody to say, Dont burn that, no, no, no. Dont set that on fire, no.
Narrator: Mo set fires in his PhD studies to study combustion, and that led him to the once-seemingly impossible dream of working with NASAs space shuttle program.
sound effect: fire ignition and crackle
Mo Abid: At USC, my thesis advisor Paul Ronney was very interested about weak flames, how they burn in microgravity, how fire takes place in the space station. So in order to understand that in space, we needed a ride. And so, a lot of testing in microgravity, working on the Vomit Comet for many, many flights to simulate a weightless environment.
Narrator: The affectionately nicknamed Vomit Comet was a NASA plane that would rise and fall in steep, roller-coaster like maneuvers called parabolas to create about 25 seconds of weightlessness. Each flight would perform 40 to 60 parabolas.
(24:04) sound effect: parabolic flight
Mo Abid: And this is leading to the first space shuttle mission, the STS-83 that launched back in 97. But there was an issue with that shuttle, with the fuel cell. And so, they had to turn around after four days of the mission, land it, change the fuel cells, and then launch again with the follow-up one, STS-94.
You know, that was really an exciting time, unfortunately ended up with a tragedy, the Space Shuttle Columbia, the STS-107, that I was working on as well. And unfortunately lost dear colleagues that I worked with and sacrificed their life to space. I think what it was is a continuous reminder that we're taking a risk all the time. Space is not easy.
Narrator: Soon after the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia, Mo came to JPL and worked on Earth satellite missions. He eventually became manager of JPLs Mechatronics group, which helps design, test and build all kinds of spacecraft, including his first Mars rover, Perseverance.
(25:12) Perseverance not only had to be strong enough to survive one of the riskiest parts of every space mission the rocket launch off Earth but also make it through the fast-paced peril of landing on Mars, and then live in a hostile alien environment where already-frigid temperatures plummet once the Sun goes down.
Mo Abid: The temperature on Mars changes drastically between night and day, so it can go from, five, 10, 20 degrees Celsius, to minus 90 degrees, minus 100 degrees. Those are huge temperature swings. And so, hardware behaves very differently at low temperature. When you have something that deploys, if you don't have the right things, you actually might freeze. You might not be even able to deploy because it's locked.
Originally posted here:
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