Thursday’s launch of the latest NASA mission to Mars represents a giant leap toward answering two important but vexing questions:
• Did Mars once support life?
• Can it support human life?
Perseverance is only the latest of the surface rovers with a powerful connection to Joplin.
The size of a car, it is the largest yet of the rovers sent to Mars. It has a 7-foot robotic arm that can drill and grip to collect rock samples. It has nearly two dozen cameras as well as two microphones that will allow us to hear the red planet for the first time. On board are 43 sample tubes that will be used to store rock and soil samples as NASA readies a follow-up mission to collect those samples, with the goal of bringing them back to Earth.
Perseverance also has a 4-pound helicopter stored aboard — a first — to help scout out distant Martian territory for future missions and hopefully, one day, for astronauts.
Also on board is an instrument to test the ability to covert atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen — vital for future crewed missions as well as an essential ingredient for rocket fuel.
We also want to give a shoutout, once again, to EaglePicher Technologies. Several different types of Joplin-made batteries will play crucial roles at each stage of flight.
There are 14 EaglePicher silver-zinc batteries on the Atlas V launch rocket. Two of the company’s thermal batteries will power the spacecraft during entry, descent and landing stages, including igniting the pyrotechnics that will open parachutes. The rover’s main power system consists of two EaglePicher batteries that will function independently from the other, in case of failure. Unlike previous rovers charged by solar panels that could be affected by windblown Martian sand and dust, Perseverance’s main battery system will be charged by a nuclear power source during surface operations, which includes driving, communications and other scientific experiments.
If all goes well, it is slated for landing in February.