Wheels in motion for NASA’s newest Mars rover

One of the front-mounted Hazard Avoidance Cameras (Hazcams) captured this image as the Perseverance rover completed a short traverse during its first test drive on Mars on Sol 14 (March 4, 2021). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Perseverance rover performed its first test drive on Martain terrain on March 4, or Sol 14, the mission team announced with the release of a batch of dramatic new images captured at the landing site now bearing the name “Octavia E. Butler Landing” where the six-wheeled robot touched down safely two weeks ago on Feb. 18, 2021, after a seven-month interplanetary voyage through space and surviving the ‘7 Minutes of Terror’ plunge through the tenuous atmosphere.

The first test drive may have been short but it marked a tremendous boost for the team going ahead knowing that Perseverance is fully capable to meet the hopes and goals of the mission and carry out groundbreaking science on her astrobiology mission to search for signs of ancient Martian microbes and gather samples for return to Earth about a decade from now.

Since the safe touchdown Perseverance has already snapped over 7,000 images including those after the first drive taken yesterday and transmitted to Earth by today. It takes about 24 hours for the images to be transmitted via the fleet of 4 NASA and ESA Martian orbiters soaring overhead.

On her first drive on the Red Plant Perseverance moved 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) across the Martian landscape, said the team at a media briefing Friday afternoon, March 5. 

“When it comes to wheeled vehicles on other planets, there are few first-time events that measure up in significance to that of the first drive,” said Anais Zarifian, Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mobility testbed engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

“This was our first chance to ‘kick the tires’ and take Perseverance out for a spin. The rover’s six-wheel drive responded superbly. We are now confident our drive system is good to go, capable of taking us wherever the science leads us over the next two years.”

This image was taken during the first drive of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars by the rover’s Navigation Cameras. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The drive served as a mobility test that marks just one of many milestones as team members check out and calibrate every system, subsystem, and instrument on Perseverance, the team noted.

The first drive lasted about 33 minutes altogether to propel the rover forward 13 feet (4 meters) and then she turned in place 150 degrees to the left and backed up 8 feet (2.5 meters) into the “new temporary parking space.”

Along the way the science and engineering team commanded Perseverance to snap images of the drive and turn in progress as well as of the touchdown site itself using the Navigation (Navcam) and Hazard Avoidance (Hazcam) Cameras “to help better understand the dynamics of a retrorocket landing on the Red Planet  … where Perseverance touched down, dispersing Martian dust with plumes from its engines.”

On Sol 3, the Mastcam-Z instrument on Perseverance captured this 360-degree panorama. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/ASU

Perseverance is designed with the capability for regular commutes extending 656 feet (200 meters) or more after the mission kicks into high gear roving as soon as this summer to pursue her science goals.

She can “rover at a top speed of 0.1 MPH,” said Zarifian.

Engineers also commanded Perseverance to ‘wiggle’ each of her four corner wheels to check out and test the wheels before driving. They have been upgraded from those used on twin sister Curiosity redesigned to make them stronger with new grousers.

NASA has named the landing site of the agency’s Perseverance rover “Octavia E. Butler Landing,” after the science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, the first African American woman to win both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award, and she was the first science fiction writer honored with a MacArthur Fellowship. The groundbreaking author was a native of Pasadena, California.

“Butler’s protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges,” said Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance. “Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically underrepresented in STEM fields.”


NASA followed up on the pattern of naming Mars landing sites after noted science fiction authors, Morgan said at the briefing.

NASA’s Curiosity rover landing site was named Bradbury landing and world-famous science fiction author Ray Bradbury after touchdown at Gale crater in August 2012.

The key objective of Perseverance is to carry out an astrobiology mission in search for signs of ancient microbial life in the rocks and soil that may contain preserved biosignatures of microbial organisms in the dried-out river delta at Jezero Crater where liquid water once flowed more than 3 billion years ago.

The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, paving the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

The prime rock targets are stromatolites which consist of sedimentary layers on fossilized mats of microorganisms deposited billions of years ago.

From its landing site, NASA’s Perseverance rover can see a remnant of a fan-shaped deposit of sediments known as a delta with its Mastcam-Z instrument. Scientists believe this delta is what remains of the confluence between an ancient river and a lake at Mars’ Jezero Crater. The delta remnant is the raised area of dark brown rock in the middle ground of the image. The delta remnant is about 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometers) to the west of the Perseverance landing site. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Perseverance counts as the first leg of a truly groundbreaking astrobiology expedition aimed at collecting and caching dozens of pristine soil and rock samples that will be returned to Earth a decade from now in search of tell-tale signs of past life and eventually pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet in the late 2030s.

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

In addition to exercising the rover’s mobility system, the team has also been busy with many other initial checkouts.

This elevation map of Jezero crater and its surroundings shows the topography of the broader region, from the highlands (red and browns) to the lower-lying floor of the Isidis impact basin (green). The height difference in this area of 1.5 million square kilometers is over 6800 meters, with the floor of Jezero crater lying at an elevation of approximately minus 2600 meters below the ‘Mars Areoid’, a notional plane of equal gravitational attraction, analogous to sea level on Earth. This elevation map was created from ESA Mars Express data. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

On Feb. 26 (Sol 8) mission controllers completed a software update, replacing the computer program that helped land Perseverance with one they will rely on to investigate the planet

More recently, the engineers and scientists checked out Perseverance’s Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) and Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instruments and deployed the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) instrument’s two wind sensors, which extend out from the rover’s mast.

In another significant milestone engineers also commanded Perseverance to unstow the rover’s 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm for the first time on March 2, or sol 12  and flexing each of its five joints over the course of two hours.

Watch this video compilation:

This set of images shows part of the deployment of the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) wind sensors on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. MEDA is a set of weather sensors, with the wind sensor components on the rover’s remote sensing mast. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Tuesday’s first test of the robotic arm was a big moment for us,” said Robert Hogg, Mars 2020 Perseverance rover deputy mission manager.

“That’s the main tool the science team will use to do close-up examination of the geologic features of Jezero Crater, and then we’ll drill and sample the ones they find the most interesting. When we got confirmation of the robotic arm flexing its muscles, including images of it working beautifully after its long trip to Mars – well, it made my day.”

The team plans more tests, driving evaluations, and science instrument calibrations in upcoming Sols.

A key activity will be “jettisoning covers that shield both the adaptive caching assembly (part of the rover’s Sample Caching System) and the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter during landing.”

“The experimental flight test program for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will also take place during the rover’s commissioning.”

Ingenuity flight tests are expected to occur this summer. The team currently is searching for the best place to drop off Ingenuity to the ground.

The science data and imagery from Perseverance are relayed to Earth via four Martian orbiters: the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and NASA’s MAVEN, Mars Odyssey (MO), and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

TGO and MRO also have relayed high-resolution imagery of the Perseverance landing site.

The High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took this image of the many parts of the Mars 2020 mission landing system that got the rover safely on the ground. The image was taken on Feb. 19, 2021. This annotated version of the image points out the locations of the parachute and back shell, the descent stage, the Perseverance rover, and the heat shield. Each inset shows an area about 650 feet (200 meters) across. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
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