News

Mountain View's NASA Ames Research Center played major role in rover landing on Mars

'There is a very strong connection that the Bay Area has to this mission,' Ames engineer Helen Hwang says

This high-resolution still image is part of a video taken by several cameras as NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars on Feb. 18. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

After launching nearly six months ago, NASA's Perseverance Rover finally landed on Mars on Thursday and Mountain View's NASA Ames Research Center played a big part in making it happen.

The Perseverance Rover is the first of three missions aimed to collect Martian soil samples. This project, which started in 2013, is called the Mars Sample Return.

"We began work on it around 2013, 2014," NASA Ames engineer Helen Hwang said. "But this whole idea of Mars sample return, I mean we've been thinking about it I think since the days of Viking 1 and 2 in the 1960s when NASA landed on Mars successfully for the first time."

The samples will help researchers determine the age-old question: Is there life on Mars?

"Of course (it is) one of the burning questions," Hwang said. "But there's so many other questions that we have about our solar system, and one of them is simply you know, how did Mars form?"

What's local journalism worth to you?

Support Palo Alto Online for as little as $5/month.

Learn more

These soil samples would help researchers find out more about planet placements, life forms and answer a plethora of other questions NASA researchers have.

But arguably the most exciting aspect about this decadeslong mission to collect soil samples from the red planet is the Bay Area's major contributions, Hwang noted.

"We tested many aspects of the entry and descent, so obviously we tested the heat shield materials, and the parachute and method NASA Ames," Hwang said. "So, there is a very strong connection that the Bay Area has to this mission."

The Ames research center backed the launch and landing of this rover in four major ways.

The first is that it tested the 165-foot-long and 51-foot-wide parachute attached to the rover in its wind tunnel which happens to be the largest in the world.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Sign up

The parachute helped slow the rover's descent into the red planet, which "came in hot" at about 940 miles per hour and in much thinner atmosphere than Earth.

In 2017, during pre-launch tests, the Bay Area research center was able to stimulate the forces the rover and parachute would need to withstand during its entry into the Martian atmosphere.

The second contribution is that NASA Ames invented and developed the heat shield, known as PICA, used to protect the rover from extreme temperatures while descending through the Martian atmosphere.

Extreme temperatures occur as the rover collides with atoms and gas molecules at speeds of 12,500 miles per hour, according to NASA Ames spokesperson Rachel Hoover.

"Engineers estimate the spacecraft can withstand temperatures of more than 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1,300 degrees Celsius," Hoover wrote. "With PICA to protect it, (it keeps) the interior relatively cool, below about 485 degrees Fahrenheit, or 250 degrees Celsius."

NASA Ames also equipped the spacecraft with sensors that collect measurements of the pressure and heating environment around the rover.

"Some of those sensors were actually built by hand by NASA Ames engineers," Hwang said. "And it's very significant because up until the Mars Curiosity mission we really didn't have much data from the missions as they were entering the Martian atmosphere so we really didn't understand the heating that was going on or the flow field around the spacecraft as its landing."

Before Ames engineers designed these sensors, researchers had to rely on simulations to prepare for descends into the Martian atmosphere.

"We found out that a lot of things we're doing were right but some of the things we were doing that needed improvement," Hwang said. "So, this time around we're really expanding upon that and we're taking a lot more measurements."

These measurements will help researchers understand various phenomena occurring on the planet, helping better prepare it for upcoming missions.

And, the final major contribution from NASA Ames is more of an added bonus — the first Mars helicopter fly that landed with the rover.

"This is very exciting," Hwang said. "We could potentially be able to explore Mars in a whole new way."

Up until now, NASA has only been able to explore Mars through stationary landers or rovers that are similar to a remote-controlled car.

With helicopter ability, researchers could have access to dangerous and treacherous terrain that they have not been able to explore in previous missions.

"NASA Ames has been studying this idea of a Martian helicopter for many years," Hwang said. "And we (assisted with a lot of the) analysis, and in the actual assembly of the helicopter itself."

This is a notable feat because Mars' atmosphere is much less dense than that of Earth, and helicopters have a hard time flying in low-density conditions, Hwang said.

The Perseverance Rover successfully landed on Mars around 1 p.m. on Thursday. The next part of the mission is to launch a rocket that would collect the samples and bring them to orbit. The final part of Mars Sample Return is to bring the samples floating in the orbit back to Earth.

Hwang said it could take up to 10 years for the samples to finally make their way back to our planet, but NASA is in the planning stages now.

"One thing to keep in mind that it's only about every two years, that it works out that Mars and Earth are in good alignment so that it's the shortest distance and takes the least amount of time to get there," Hwang said.

NASA is also working with the European Space Agency on the Mars Sample Return missions.

"This is a very big undertaking for both of our space agencies, and it will take some time, but it's happening, and that's really exciting," Hwang said.

Craving a new voice in Peninsula dining?

Sign up for the Peninsula Foodist newsletter.

Sign up now

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Mountain View's NASA Ames Research Center played major role in rover landing on Mars

'There is a very strong connection that the Bay Area has to this mission,' Ames engineer Helen Hwang says

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Sat, Feb 20, 2021, 8:34 am

After launching nearly six months ago, NASA's Perseverance Rover finally landed on Mars on Thursday and Mountain View's NASA Ames Research Center played a big part in making it happen.

The Perseverance Rover is the first of three missions aimed to collect Martian soil samples. This project, which started in 2013, is called the Mars Sample Return.

"We began work on it around 2013, 2014," NASA Ames engineer Helen Hwang said. "But this whole idea of Mars sample return, I mean we've been thinking about it I think since the days of Viking 1 and 2 in the 1960s when NASA landed on Mars successfully for the first time."

The samples will help researchers determine the age-old question: Is there life on Mars?

"Of course (it is) one of the burning questions," Hwang said. "But there's so many other questions that we have about our solar system, and one of them is simply you know, how did Mars form?"

These soil samples would help researchers find out more about planet placements, life forms and answer a plethora of other questions NASA researchers have.

But arguably the most exciting aspect about this decadeslong mission to collect soil samples from the red planet is the Bay Area's major contributions, Hwang noted.

"We tested many aspects of the entry and descent, so obviously we tested the heat shield materials, and the parachute and method NASA Ames," Hwang said. "So, there is a very strong connection that the Bay Area has to this mission."

The Ames research center backed the launch and landing of this rover in four major ways.

The first is that it tested the 165-foot-long and 51-foot-wide parachute attached to the rover in its wind tunnel which happens to be the largest in the world.

The parachute helped slow the rover's descent into the red planet, which "came in hot" at about 940 miles per hour and in much thinner atmosphere than Earth.

In 2017, during pre-launch tests, the Bay Area research center was able to stimulate the forces the rover and parachute would need to withstand during its entry into the Martian atmosphere.

The second contribution is that NASA Ames invented and developed the heat shield, known as PICA, used to protect the rover from extreme temperatures while descending through the Martian atmosphere.

Extreme temperatures occur as the rover collides with atoms and gas molecules at speeds of 12,500 miles per hour, according to NASA Ames spokesperson Rachel Hoover.

"Engineers estimate the spacecraft can withstand temperatures of more than 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1,300 degrees Celsius," Hoover wrote. "With PICA to protect it, (it keeps) the interior relatively cool, below about 485 degrees Fahrenheit, or 250 degrees Celsius."

NASA Ames also equipped the spacecraft with sensors that collect measurements of the pressure and heating environment around the rover.

"Some of those sensors were actually built by hand by NASA Ames engineers," Hwang said. "And it's very significant because up until the Mars Curiosity mission we really didn't have much data from the missions as they were entering the Martian atmosphere so we really didn't understand the heating that was going on or the flow field around the spacecraft as its landing."

Before Ames engineers designed these sensors, researchers had to rely on simulations to prepare for descends into the Martian atmosphere.

"We found out that a lot of things we're doing were right but some of the things we were doing that needed improvement," Hwang said. "So, this time around we're really expanding upon that and we're taking a lot more measurements."

These measurements will help researchers understand various phenomena occurring on the planet, helping better prepare it for upcoming missions.

And, the final major contribution from NASA Ames is more of an added bonus — the first Mars helicopter fly that landed with the rover.

"This is very exciting," Hwang said. "We could potentially be able to explore Mars in a whole new way."

Up until now, NASA has only been able to explore Mars through stationary landers or rovers that are similar to a remote-controlled car.

With helicopter ability, researchers could have access to dangerous and treacherous terrain that they have not been able to explore in previous missions.

"NASA Ames has been studying this idea of a Martian helicopter for many years," Hwang said. "And we (assisted with a lot of the) analysis, and in the actual assembly of the helicopter itself."

This is a notable feat because Mars' atmosphere is much less dense than that of Earth, and helicopters have a hard time flying in low-density conditions, Hwang said.

The Perseverance Rover successfully landed on Mars around 1 p.m. on Thursday. The next part of the mission is to launch a rocket that would collect the samples and bring them to orbit. The final part of Mars Sample Return is to bring the samples floating in the orbit back to Earth.

Hwang said it could take up to 10 years for the samples to finally make their way back to our planet, but NASA is in the planning stages now.

"One thing to keep in mind that it's only about every two years, that it works out that Mars and Earth are in good alignment so that it's the shortest distance and takes the least amount of time to get there," Hwang said.

NASA is also working with the European Space Agency on the Mars Sample Return missions.

"This is a very big undertaking for both of our space agencies, and it will take some time, but it's happening, and that's really exciting," Hwang said.

Comments

Midtowners
Registered user
Midtown
on Feb 20, 2021 at 5:26 pm
Midtowners, Midtown
Registered user
on Feb 20, 2021 at 5:26 pm

So exciting! My dad, Sherwood Chang, was Chief of the Exobiology Branch at NASA Ames Research Center for many years and worked on the first Mars missions (Viking 1975/76) as well as the Apollo Lunar Science Program. I remember big excitement in our Palo Alto home when he got an emergency call to fly to Houston in the middle of the night to investigate movement detected by the Viking Lander!

He says they first started thinking about how to make this lander and taking Martian soil samples to analyze and return way back then in 1976. We're so lucky to have Ames Research Center, on the leading edge of science and exploration, right in our own backyard. Congratulations to the generations of scientists who carried the work forward to this stunning accomplishment!


Not Good Enough
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2021 at 5:56 pm
Not Good Enough, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Feb 20, 2021 at 5:56 pm

So interesting to hear of Sherwood Chang, Palo Altan.
A "3AM" phone call to grab a flight to Texas to investigate inexplicable movement on Mars? Are you kidding me? Who get's those kinda calls? Superman? Batman? No - Sherwood Chang, Amazing Scientist!
Congratulations to all involved in this project. I sure hope I'm around in the 2030s to see what's in the soil samples - fingers crossed, it's LIFE.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 20, 2021 at 6:12 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Feb 20, 2021 at 6:12 pm

YEAH! Congratulations to all for a fantastic achievement.


pearl
Registered user
another community
on Feb 22, 2021 at 2:26 pm
pearl, another community
Registered user
on Feb 22, 2021 at 2:26 pm

Thank you soooooooooooo much NASA Ames Research people for your years of hard work, and for your incredible contributions to our world! Hope I'll still be alive in 10 years when those rocks are returned to earth from Mars. That will be so exciting!!! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! :)


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

In order to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion, commenting on stories is available to those who are registered users. If you are already a registered user and the commenting form is not below, you need to log in. If you are not registered, you can do so here.

Please make sure your comments are truthful, on-topic and do not disrespect another poster. Don't be snarky or belittling. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

See our announcement about requiring registration for commenting.