The NASA Perseverance Mars rover left the “Octavia E. Butler” landing site on June 1 to begin the science phase of its mission. Until recently, the rover had been undertaking system tests, or commissioning, and supporting the month-long flying testing of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.
The Perseverance rover touched down on Mars in February. The massive machine sent back images of the Martian surface and began relaying all kinds of data just moments after its safe landing, letting its handlers back on Earth know everything was fine. With such a quick start, you’d think the rover would be well into its science campaign by now, but it’s only just getting started.
Perseverance is a large, complicated machine with a lot of high-tech hardware. NASA, like any other respectable space organization, had to adhere to its own set of rigid criteria for the initial weeks and months of its mission.
It necessitated extensive testing of Perseverance’s numerous sensors and motors, but even that wouldn’t have been enough to push the science phase back until June. So, what caused such a long time between the landing and the scientific investigation? Ingenuity.
Perseverance wasn’t the only NASA spacecraft that landed on Mars in February. The Ingenuity helicopter, which traveled to Mars on Perseverance’s back, arrived in one piece as well. Despite its diminutive size, the helicopter was a critical component of the Mars 2020 project, and NASA lost no time in deploying it so that flight tests could begin.
The important thing to remember is that Ingenuity needed Perseverance to stay close by in order to relay data back to Earth. The big rover also functioned as an observation tool throughout the flying testing, transmitting back photographs and video of the helicopter in action so the Ingenuity team could assess its performance.
Ingenuity has exceeded expectations, demonstrating that powered flight on Mars is not only viable, but may also be the most efficient way to explore broad swaths of the Red Planet.
Perseverance couldn’t perform the kind of exploration it could have done if it didn’t have to keep within shouting distance of Ingenuity. That didn’t stop the rover from putting some of its most interesting features to the test, and according to NASA, the rover has already sent the first Martian sounds and over 75,000 photographs. The rover can now begin its science phase, which the rover team is quite thrilled about.
“We are putting the rover’s commissioning phase as well as the landing site in our rearview mirror and hitting the road,” Jennifer Trosper, project manager of Perseverance, said in a statement. “Over the next several months, Perseverance will be exploring a 1.5-square-mile [4-square-kilometer] patch of crater floor. It is from this location that the first samples from another planet will be collected for return to Earth by a future mission.”
For both science aficionados and NASA, this is a very exciting time. We don’t know what Perseverance might discover in the Jezero crater yet, but we’re very thrilled to find out.