My dear Speculators, the Perseverance Rover, AKA “Percy,” landed on February 18th. I wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate perseverance and all the awesome that this innovation in automated extraterrestrial exploration has to offer writers of speculative fiction.
NASA intends for Percy to determine some key information about Mars, including whether there is evidence of past or present microbial life on the planet, whether oxygen can be produced, if water on Mars is only subsurface or is incorporated in the soil (as some recent hypotheses suggest), and characterizing the environmental conditions that will affect future astronauts.
This is exciting science!
Percy Stuck the Landing
Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity rovers all entered the Martian atmosphere and descended with the assistance of parachutes. The rovers were then encased in air bags and hit the ground like bouncy balls, the airbags deflated once the rovers came to rest, and the rovers themselves deployed.
Once the lander conducted its landing navigation, the skycrane’s rockets ignited, the parachute was ejected, and Percy was suspended on cables below the skycrane. The “seven minutes of terror” ensued as the skycrane maneuvered Percy to Jezero crater and Percy touched down. The skycrane then made the ultimate sacrifice, crashing a safe distance away.
Remember, it takes several minutes for information to be communicated between Earth and Mars. The landing sequence had to be completely automated. The technology used to accomplish this feat is nothing short of amazing.
Perseverance is equipped with six entry, descent, and landing cameras, six engineering cameras (two specifically for navigation), and four science cameras. It’s already returned over a thousand images, and you can also view the videos on NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) YouTube page. If you haven’t already (and maybe even if you have), watch the landing video.
The Mars Orbiter also has cameras, so you can get a bird’s eye view of the planet. Finally, one of the most spectacular images is this panoramic shot. You can zoom in, pan around, and see the detail of the Martian surface. Toggle to full screen mode for an even better view. If you have an interest in geology, here’s fair warning: you may spend way too much time on this image, trying to sort out what kind of rock you’re looking at.
For the first time, we can hear Mars! Because Mars’ atmosphere is thinner than ours, the wind is quiet (very, very quiet). You may have to turn up the volume on your speakers to hear it.
There is also a recording of Perseverance’s laser pinging off the rocks on Mars. This is one of the ways that the rover makes its observations about the kinds of rocks it studies.
Finally, you can hear recordings of the rover in action as it navigates Jezero crater. It sounds like a bunch of bumping around, but it’s coming from another planet. That’s awesome enough for me.
Ingenuity is the first helicopter to be deployed on Mars. The first flight is, at the time of this writing, scheduled for early April. By the time this column is live, Ingenuity may have already flown! Or, it may have tried to. The thing is, we don’t know how Ingenuity will perform. And that’s what we’re all waiting to see.
Ingenuity was designed with Mars’s lower gravity and thinner atmosphere in mind. NASA engineers did their best. But even they won’t know how Ingenuity performs until it’s deployed.
If Ingenuity takes flight, it will be able to record and return observations from areas of Mars that Percy can’t reach.
Previous rovers could only send their observations and analysis back to Earth. Perseverance is going to collect samples in containers and leave them on the surface in a process called “depot caching.” These samples will be picked up by future missions and returned to Earth for study.
That’s when even more magic will happen. There’s only so much that can be learned from remote observation.
Taking it to the Page
So, what is a writer to do with all this mind-blowing innovation? Do you have a story set on Mars? Use the imagery and recordings to help solidify your setting and deepen your description. Even if you have a story set on a planet that isn’t Mars, you can use the media banks to help you imagine your alien world.
How would transportation work on another planet? Both Perseverance (ground travel) and Ingenuity (flight) can help you there. Even the skycrane and the other entry, descent, and landing (EDL) technologies can offer some insight.
Pay attention to the experimental results returned to Earth. How will they change our understanding of life on other planets? How will they affect our ability to establish research bases, or even colonies on Mars (or elsewhere)? How can you use this information to heighten the verisimilitude of your science fictional work in progress?
Once your head is swimming with possibility, head to the keyboard and set it loose.
Until next time, keep speculating, and see where it leads you!
Melanie is an instructional designer by day, SF&F author-in-progress and ink alchemist by night. She is the third generation of Marttilas to live in her little house on the street that bears her family name. She blogs at https://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.