Pathfinder to Perseverance- Mars’ robotic history

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- Shortly after landing on Mars, Perseverance tweeted a picture with the caption, “I’m part of a proud lineage of robotic explorers, carrying the torch forward on Mars.”

This plaque, a family portrait, was installed on the rover as an Easter Egg to pay “tribute to those who’ve gone before me, and to new possibilities ahead.” 

“It’s been many, many years to get where we are today.”

tony rice, jpl/nasa solar system ambassador

Missions to Mars began in the 1960s with flybys and photographs of the red planet. In the mid 70s, NASA managed to place a lander on the surface of Mars with Viking. However, Viking didn’t move. It would take over two more decades for a robotic rover to arrive. In the late 90s, Mars’ first robotic visitor arrived with Pathfinder- Sojourner.

It was only about the size of a microwave.

Three generations of Mars rovers.
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The following missions, the Mars Exploration Rover missions, were about the size of a golf cart,” JPL/NASA Solar System Ambassador Tony Rice explains.

“You move on to Curiosity. We move from the size of a golf cart to a mini cooper. And now (with Perseverance) we are landing a ton of robot on the planet.”

That increased weight made landing quite a bit more complicated. Spirit and Opportunity in the early 2000s used a combination of parachutes and Kevlar airbags to cushion their fall. “But that wouldn’t work with a ton sized rover, so that’s where that sky crane approach was created,” Rice says.

“The first time I saw that I looked at it and said there was no way that was going to work…but it worked nearly flawlessly.”

The Mars 2020 mission’s entry, descent and landing sequence.
 Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Now firmly on Martian soil, Perseverance can get to work. It will build on the discoveries made by the other rovers that came before it- the biggest of which was finding that liquid water once flowed on Mars.

“It had the conditions that could have supported life…so you move onto the Perseverance mission, we’re looking for some evidence that life may have existed there,” Rice says.

In addition to seeking signs of microbial life, Perseverance will experiment with an instrument called MOXIE that will take the carbon dioxide that makes up 95% of Mars’ thin atmosphere and split it- creating oxygen.

“That’s going to be pretty important when we put people on Mars. But even the EDL, the Entry Descent and Landing, and all that great video we got from there will be super useful in planning a mission to get to Mars.”

Just like how Mercury & Gemini taught us how to go to the moon with Apollo, the lessons and skills learned with each rover expedition has put us closer to our first human voyage to another planet in the near future. 

We still have a ways to go but by looking back, we can see how far we’ve come.  

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

Video and graphics used from NASA/JPL-Caltech

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