Perseverance touches down on the red planet


NASA’s Perseverance rover, launched in July 2020, landed on Mars on 18 February. The Perseverance’s mission involves exploration of the red planet’s Jezero crater. It is carrying several scientific instruments on board, including Finnish-made humidity and pressure instrumentation, in addition to cameras, microphones and a miniature helicopter.

Confirmation that the Perseverance had landed safely was received at 20:55 GMT, prompting respectful fist bumps between engineers at NASA’s mission control in California, who were separated by perspex screens.

The Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI) has provided Perseverance with measurement instrumentation. Equipped with Vaisala’s sensors, FMI’s instrumentation will be used to provide pressure and humidity measurements in the extreme conditions of Mars.

On a quest to find answers
While the landing itself is a thrilling moment, the true test of success will be the mission itsef, as the six-wheeled rover navigates the Red Planet’s extreme conditions. Perseverance will spend at least one Mars year, equal to around two Earth years, exploring the landing-site area.

The rover is expected to land on the ancient river delta in Jezero Crater, which is believed to be the optimal place to find traces of ancient life. To collect data and samples from the Red Planet, NASA is working together with a group of trusted scientific partners.

The design of Perseverance (illustrated, above) is an evolution of its predecessor, Curiosity, with the new vehicle incorporating more durable aluminium wheels, which are larger (52.5cm diameter compared to Curiosity’s 50cm). Perseverance also features a longer and stronger robotic arm, which hosts an elaborate rock-coring and sampling mechanism (source: Wikipedia).

The FMI’s instrumentation is part of the Spanish-led consortium’s Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA). The MEDA instrumentation kit is basically a Martian weather station that takes a wide range of atmospheric measurements: temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity, and the amount and size of dust particles. Vaisala’s pressure and humidity sensors onboard Perseverance are similar, but more advanced, to those sent to Mars on the Curiosity rover in 2012.

“The rover’s equipment needs to operate in the harsh Martian environment, with very low pressure conditions and cold temperatures, and it must be able to resist possible global dust storms. In addition to the environmental aspects and potential dangers of the landing itself, the distance between Mars and Earth makes the mission challenging. There is no one to fix the instrumentation if something goes wrong,” says Maria Genzer, Head of Planetary Research and Space Technology Group at FMI.

Meteorological observation network on another planet
When landing, the Perseverance and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity will operate around 2000 km from each other. Together they will help create a small-scale atmospheric observation network on Mars. This is the first step towards the wider observation network being planned for Mars in the future.

“Mars and Earth are like rocky sisters. They both have seasonal variation, ice caps, similar declination of axis, length of day, and rocky consistency. Mars offers us a basic model of Earth – without vegetation, water, human life, cities, and other ‘noise’ we encounter on Earth,” says Genzer. “Interplanetary atmospheric research offers us tools to better understand our current habitat, and who knows what other findings there might be.”

BAROCAP® wafer: The silicon-based micromechanical pressure sensor combines single-crystal silicon material and capacitive measurement.

“We are excited to provide our world-leading sensor technology to a Mars mission once again. Our accurate and durable HUMICAP® and BAROCAP® sensors will enable high-quality humidity and pressure data even on the Red Planet and lay the foundations for the atmospheric observation network on Mars,” said Samuli Hänninen, Vice President of Vaisala’s Products and Technologies.

The Mars 2020 mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. The Perseverance rover is designed to better understand the environmental conditions and geology of Mars and seek signs of ancient life. The mission will collect and store a set of rock and soil samples that could be returned to Earth in the future.

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The first episode of a short documentary series looking at some of the science on Mars is included below.