Perseverance, a rover set to take off for Mars
The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission is scheduled to launch at the end of July. Whether before take-off or once the rover lands in February 2021, Bordeaux-based researchers’ contributions to this long-term mission are multi-faceted. Step 1: countdown.
The summer of 2020 will mark a new stage in NASA's Mars 2020 mission with the Perseverance rover launch to the red planet. The rover is scheduled to launch on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida between July 30th and August 15th. Perseverance will be taking off with the Franco-American SuperCam instrument on board, which scientists at the Center for Intense Lasers and Applications (CELIA – CNRS, CEA and the University of Bordeaux) and the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux (LAB – CNRS and the University of Bordeaux) have been working on for several years. Between designing the instrument, simulations, data analysis and interpretation and daily operations once the rover has landed on martian soil, what does these researchers' work entail, both before and after this long journey?
French expertise on Mars
Since the early 2000s, NASA has carried out several missions that have confirmed the presence of water (Spirit and Opportunity rovers) and the habitability of Mars (Curiosity rover). A dense atmosphere, liquid water, mild temperatures, carbon chains… Approximately 3.5 billion years ago, Earth and Mars shared similar conditions. Could the life forms that emerged at this time on the blue planet also have existed on the red planet? This question is at the heart of the new Mars 2020 mission.
"With its seven instruments and small Ingenuity drone, Perseverance will explore the surface of Mars in order to understand its geological past", explains Bruno Bousquet, a physics professor at the University of Bordeaux and CELIA researcher. "The rover will collect samples that could potentially contain traces of fossil life." These samples could then be recovered and brought back to Earth in a future mission. The Mars 2020 explorations will also help characterize the habitability of the planet and prepare for human exploration.
"The SuperCam instrument, created through Franco-American collaboration, is an enhanced version of ChemCam, one of the instruments used by Curiosity", explains Philippe Caïs, a CNRS research engineer in electronics at the LAB. "SuperCam is composed of a laser and three spectrometers in order to study the chemical and mineral makeup of rocks from a distance." The instrument also contains a high-resolution camera and a microphone to record sounds on the planet, in particular the sounds of lasers firing.
"There are five observation and analysis techniques spread out over two locations on the rover – the mast and the interior – all of which communicate through fiber optics", adds the engineer, who is also the SuperCam Mast-Unit project manager, which is the French portion of the instrument. "One of the challenges at the engineering level was the weight", says Philippe Caïs. "With only 6 kg available, we had to make a significant technological leap between ChemCam and SuperCam in order to provide more functions without changing the volume." Delivered in June 2019, the flight model was sent to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California to be assembled on the rover. Since the scientists were required to comply with the planetary protection rules to prevent the contamination of Mars, all tests were carried out in a clean room, applying disinfection and cleaning procedures used for surgery.
The CELIA scientific team, made up of Bruno Bousquet and Élise Clavé, a doctoral student in physics, has spent the last few months making laboratory measurements similar to those that will be made on Mars and building algorithms. "My current work involves considering scenarios for reading the spectra we will be obtaining through the various SuperCam techniques, and demonstrating the advantages of an overall reading of this data", explains the young researcher.
While they await data from Mars, the two researchers are trying to push the instrument onboard the rover to its limits, by carrying out experiments to discover new signatures in the spectrum so that they will be ready to understand them. "In February we also went to the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) in Toulouse to learn how to use sophisticated software that will allow us to recover and process data, report results rapidly and communicate with colleagues once the rover is on Mars", adds Bruno Bousquet.
Countdown to launch
Perseverance is now at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral and is waiting to be given the green light to begin its long journey. Unfortunately, the French teams will not be able to attend the launch due to the Covid-19 crisis. The landing on Mars planned for February 18th 2021, will mark a new chapter in the scientists' work: exploring a planet 78 million kilometers away, image of the solar system 3.5 billion years ago.
CELIA scientific contacts
Physics doctoral student
LAB scientific contact
CNRS research engineer