By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
The Mars 2020 mission is on the mind of Raymond, E. Arvidson, PhD, during the countdown to the launch of the Perseverance Rover. Arvidson is waiting on the sidelines this time, which is rare for such a mission. The Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis played a significant role in several NASA rover and lander launches to landings, and beyond.
“Because for the first 90 days of the mission, you’re at the the Jet Propulsion Laboratory living on Mars time, and I’ve done enough of that! I think I’m the individual who’s done more Mars time than anyone else on Earth because I’ve been doing this so long. Viking lander 1, Viking lander 2, Phoenix, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity times 90 days. Living on a day that’s some number of minutes longer than an Earth day. And you go in every shift a little bit later to keep up with the Mars clock, and I pretty much had it!” Arvidson laughed.
That is, for the day-to-day boots on the ground science for this mission, because he still has an important role with the Curiosity rover’s daily drives and data analysis as a NASA science team member for Curiosity.
The Mars 2020 mission with its Perseverance rover is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. Arvidson has played a significant role in this long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. The Mars 2020 mission addresses high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, including key astrobiology questions about the potential for life on Mars.
Perseverance will continue the success of other Mars rovers, conducting a detailed search for evidence of past microbial life on Mars. Although the Washington University professor is not on the Perseverance science team, Arvidson and his lab have been involved and instrumental.
“We’re providing products they can use to help them design where they’re going to rove to, to get samples,” he explained.
Proving insightful from his extensive experience with rovers, Arvidson also helped with wheel design for Perseverance. As a NASA science team member for the Curiosity rover, Arvidson directs path planning. Using NASA’s mixed-reality software called OnSight, that’s combined with Microsoft HoloLens, Arvidson can visualize Curiosity’s drive with OnSight’s tools and sophisticated imaging.
“Real scale! I can walk up and down the hallway and actually walk the (Mars) site with the engineers who are planning the drive and say, ‘Hey guys, avoid this rock. This is a low area that’s filled with sand, it’s too deep for the wheels to get through.’”
Because of the time he spends with Curiosity and the data the rover is producing, Arvidson took a step back from Perseverance.
“I can’t do two rovers again. That’s just too much work.”
He’s referring to handling both his work with the Curiosity rover along with operations for the Opportunity rover as Deputy Principal Investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission that was in charge of Opportunity. It’s only been a couple years since NASA last heard from Opportunity after an enormous Martian dust storm.
Over time, Arvidson and the rovers experienced many milestones, finding evidence that Mars once had fresh water and signs of microbial life.
“Curiosity’s kind of mantra was- was the planet habitable? And the answer is yes, because when we drilled into the lakebeds we found evidence for water-bearing minerals and organic materials,” said Arvidson.
Now Perseverance is sent to accomplish even more. Arvidson was part of the team creating specifications for the Mars 2020 mission. He helped choose the landing site.
“Which is Jezero Crater with this big eroded delta. And we’re continuing to provide images and other pieces of information that help the science team once they land and start traversing, (such as) where to go to get the best samples.”
Arvidson said he helped the team succeed with one of the mission’s biggest proposals, involving the ability for Perseverance to drill and collect rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth. A future rover, what he calls a fetching rover, would go to Mars to retrieve and return samples.
“Why is it so important? Because you can do many more very detailed analysis in the laboratory than you can do from a rover,” said Arvidson. “That’s really a mission that will keep on giving for a century.”
Perseverance has the latest advancements and will test new technology for future robotic and human exploration. And the Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, is hitching a ride to test the first powered flight on Mars.
Arvidson’s campus facility is already home to NASA’s Planetary Data System Geosciences Node. PDS Geosciences Node, https://pds-geosciences.wustl.edu, will be archiving all the Perseverance data.
“Images, chemistry, mineralogy, organic content- hosted through our website,” said Arvidson.
As the Mars 2020 mission launch date approaches, Arvidson said he has a general feeling of anxiety from having so much on the line.
“Because travel in space is not easy. The hardest part is landing.”
Perseverance is scheduled to land in February 2021.