The Mars rover team is continuing the work necessary to launch NASA‘s Perseverance probe to the surface of the Red Planet in spite of the challenges they encounter. No mission has paused until now, no matter the circumstances, and this program won’t either, although the global crisis we’re currently in has halted numerous projects.
Continuing the Work From Home
Because of the planetary alignment, the only ideal time to launch to Mars occurs three weeks out of every 26 months, as per NASA. If the rover won’t make it in time to the launch pad, the mission will have to be delayed until September 2022.
The project is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory but has transitioned about 90 percent of the team involved in the mission to telework. Even so, the team has continued to work on the software of the rover, mission planning, and operation processes, as well as on systems engineering preparations for launch.
However, for some important spacecraft tasks, a physical presence in the lab is needed. Last week, mission-essential staff completed the assemblage and cleaning of the sample tubes that will be used to hold Martian sediment and rocks for an Earth return.
“NASA has determined that Perseverance is the science program that has the agency’s highest priority, and the project has responded superbly to this challenge,” said Michael Watkins, director of JPL. “When we realized the pandemic would affect Lab access, we were quick to define their chief objective as being workplace safety for team members and their families, and then built a plan around that providing the clearest path to the launch pad.”
Other 80 team members are carrying out final processing and checkout of the probe’s components at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Inspecting Perseverance Via a Smartphone
According to NASA, a more difficult task is figuring out how essential personnel could travel from Southern California to Florida as the world is facing the pandemic.
“These are people with a very special skillset — they know how to put all the pieces together,” said JPL’s Matt Wallace, deputy project manager for Perseverance. “While this team has done a remarkable job in a very difficult time for our nation and the world, we would not have been able to continue through this global emergency without the support of colleagues across the agency.”
Besides NASA, personnel from all over the United States aerospace industry and the Department of Energy have carried out important activities in getting Perseverance ready for launch. Because direct flights have been indispensable, some members could not take them, in spite of being required.
“Just like a pilot does a preflight inspection before going up, we have a ‘walk down’ of the spacecraft, where subject matter experts who are most intimate with the workings of a particular spacecraft system get one last chance to spot anything that might be wrong or could be made better,” explained Wallace. “We would not launch without the ability to complete these inspections.”
That is why the project’s imaging scientist, Justin Maki, has made it possible for them to see the spacecraft by making a live video walk down of a Mars rover. On March 31st and April 1st, six Perseverance senior engineers watched from their homes as a technician in the probe’s cleanroom moved their smartphone into every part of the rover.
The completed probe is set to be attached to its Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in June. Perseverance is a robotic scientist weighing around 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms) and has the mission to search for signs of past microbial life.