Exploring Mars Like Never Before

Exploring Mars Like Never Before

Mars 2020 PerseverancePerseverance is the ability to keep doing something in spite of obstacles, and that's just what the team at NASA JPL did. (Photo: NASA JPL)


NASA’s latest Mars rover, Perseverance, will make landfall on the Red Planet on February 18 at approximately 3:55 p.m. EST. Its mission: to spend at least one Mars year (two Earth years) exploring the landing site region and collecting samples that NASA can bring back to Earth for further analysis. NASA has sent rovers to explore Mars before, however, these previous rovers did not have the capability to collect samples.

Vishnu Sridhar

Aerospace Engineering alumnus Vishnu Sridhar (AE 2015) works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA and is serving as the instrument engineer for SuperCam on Perseverance. SuperCam is a remote-sensing instrument that will use laser spectroscopy to analyze the chemical composition of rocks on the surface of Mars. According to Sridhar, the SuperCam has two different lasers for spectroscopy.

“One laser is a non-destructive type of laser,” said Sridhar. “It's called the Raman laser. It fires a laser beam onto a rock, and the light coming out of the rock gets analyzed using the internal spectrometers, that way we can see if there’s any organic material or anything that could hint the sign of past life on Mars.”

Sridhar explained that the other type of laser, the Laser Induced Blast Spectroscopy (LIBS) laser, actually fires on a piece of rock and plasma vaporizes the rock’s top layer. The light coming out of the rock can be detected using the spectrometers, and again, tell researchers more about the rock composition.

In addition to these lasers, SuperCam also carries a microphone which will be the first microphone on Mars, allowing NASA to hear the environment of Mars. There are two main objectives for this microphone. The scientific objective is to record the sound pitch of the lasers firing on rock, and from that audio, scientists can better determine the rock composition. The other use of the microphone will be to record the sound of the rover’s actuators which will allow NASA engineers to monitor how the actuators behave in Mars’ environment over time.  

Perseverance will also be carrying onboard a twin-rotor, solar-powered helicopter that will remain encapsulated after landing and will deploy to the surface once a suitable area to conduct test flights is found. If the helicopter takes flight, it will prove that autonomous, controlled flight can be executed in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere, therefore, future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations. 

Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to attempt powered flight on another planet. (photo: NASA)

“One of the coolest feature onboard Perseverance is a helicopter,” said Sridhar. “We call it Ingenuity, and it's going to be the first powered air vehicle on another planet outside Earth. We're going to be recording video of that first flight, and we’ll also use the SuperCam microphone to record the audio. So, we will capture actual video and audio of the vehicle flying on Mars.” 

In July 2020, when Perseverance launched from Cape Canaveral, Sridhar was able to watch the event from afar. But for the landing, he’s working in the ‘hot seat’. He’ll be the payload downlink coordinator -- the lead payload analyst who makes sure all the instruments onboard the rover are still healthy and operational once it has landed. 

This is not Sridhar’s first mission. Prior to joining the Mars 2020 project, he was the spacecraft systems engineer and final flight director for the Opportunity rover on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project. Sridhar explained that being a young engineer and having a critical role in a mission like this is not necessarily uncommon at JPL.

“I think Georgia Tech has played a huge role in shaping me into thinking more critically and being more innovative, which ultimately prepared me for JPL,” said Sridhar. “I was a part of this design team for one of my undergraduate courses at Tech where we were participating in a flight quest project. We had to use aircraft landing and takeoff data to better predict gate arrival times and, as a result, we had to develop an iPhone app on our own. As aerospace engineers, we were not super experienced with building an app, but we branched out and got it done. That’s the kind of experience JPL looks for.”

Sridhar said he’s very excited for the landing but is also a bit anxious. He added that JPL has done this in the past so he’s confident that the entry descent and landing team is going to land Perseverance on Mars safely.

“After that, I am looking forward to monitoring SuperCam because I’m the activity lead for that instrument,” said Sridhar. “That's going to last about two months, and it's going to be my first experience living on Mars time. I'll be waking up at odd hours to start work because I have to be awake at sunrise on Mars and will go to sleep at sunset on Mars, so it's going to be an interesting month.”

Once Sridhar spends a month examining and ensuring the SuperCam is fully functional, he’ll hand it over to the research team, so that they can begin to use the instrument for scientific discoveries.  

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Candler Hobbs