Perseverance, NASA’s most advanced Mars rover yet, is scheduled to leave Earth for its seven-month journey to the Red Planet this summer.
Only the fifth NASA rover destined for Mars, Perseverance is designed to build on the work and scientific discoveries of its predecessors. Find out more about the rover’s science goals and new technologies below. Plus, learn how you can bring the exciting engineering and science of this mission to students with lessons and DIY projects covering topics like biology, geology, physics, mathematics, engineering, coding and language arts.
Why It’s Important
Perseverance may look similar to Curiosity – the NASA rover that’s been exploring Mars since 2012 – but the latest rover’s new science instruments, upgraded cameras, improved onboard computers and new landing technologies make it uniquely capable of accomplishing the science goals planned for the mission.
Looking for signs of habitability
The first of the rover’s four science goals deals with studying the habitability of Mars. The mission is designed to look for environments that could have supported life in the past.
Perseverance will land in Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) crater that scientists believe was once filled with water. Data from orbiters at the Red Planet suggest that water once flowed into the crater, carrying clay minerals from the surrounding area, depositing them in the crater and forming a delta. We find similar conditions on Earth, where the right combination of water and minerals can support life. By comparing these to the conditions we find on Mars, we can better understand the Red Planet’s ability to support life. The Perseverance rover is specially designed to study the habitability of Mars’ Jezero Crater using a suite of scientific instruments, or tools, that can evaluate the environment and the processes that influence it.
Seeking signs of ancient life
The rover’s second science goal is closely linked with its first: Perseverance will seek out evidence that microbial life once existed on Mars in the past. In doing so, the mission could make progress in understanding the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe – the scientific field known as astrobiology.
It’s important to note that the rover won’t be looking for present-day life. Instead, its instruments are designed to look for clues left behind by ancient life. We call those clues biosignatures. A biosignature might be a pattern, object or substance that was created by life in the past and can be identified by certain properties, such as chemical composition, mineralogy or structure.
To better understand if a possible biosignature is really a clue left behind by ancient life, we need to look for biosignatures and study the habitability of the environment. Discovering that an environment is habitable does not automatically mean life existed there and some geologic processes can leave behind biosignature-like signs in non-habitable environments.
Perseverance’s third science goal is to gather samples of Martian rocks and soil. The rover will leave the samples on Mars, where future missions could collect them and bring them back to Earth for further study.
Scientists can learn a lot about Mars with a rover like Perseverance that can take in situ (Latin for “on-site”) measurements. But examining samples from Mars in full-size laboratories on Earth can provide far more information about whether life ever existed on Mars than studying them on the Martian surface.
Perseverance will take the first step toward making a future sample return possible. The rover is equipped with special coring drill bits that will collect scientifically interesting samples similar in size to a piece of chalk. Each sample will be capped and sealed in individual collection tubes. The tubes will be stored aboard the rover until the mission team determines the best strategic locations on the planet’s surface to leave them. The collection tubes will stay on the Martian surface until a potential future campaign collects them for return to Earth. NASA and the European Space Agency are solidifying concepts for the missions that will complete this campaign.
Preparing for future astronauts
Like the robotic spacecraft that landed on the Moon to prepare for the Apollo astronauts, the Perseverance rover’s fourth science goal will help pave the way for humans to eventually visit Mars.
Before humans can set foot on the Red Planet, we need to know more about conditions there and demonstrate that technologies needed for returning to Earth, and survival, will work. That’s where MOXIE comes in. Short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, MOXIE is designed to separate oxygen from carbon dioxide (CO2) in Mars’ atmosphere. The atmosphere that surrounds the Red Planet is 96% CO2. But there’s very little oxygen – only 0.13%, compared with the 21% in Earth’s atmosphere.
Oxygen is a crucial ingredient in rocket fuel and is essential for human survival. MOXIE could show how similar systems sent to Mars ahead of astronauts could generate rocket fuel to bring astronauts back to Earth and even create oxygen for breathing.
Flying the first Mars helicopter
Joining the Perseverance rover on Mars is the first helicopter designed to fly on another planet. Dubbed Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstration that will be the first test of powered flight on another planet.
The lightweight helicopter rides to Mars attached to the belly of the rover. After Perseverance is on Mars, the helicopter will be released from the rover and will attempt up to five test flights in the thin atmosphere of Mars. After a successful first attempt at lifting off, hovering a few feet above the ground for 20 to 30 seconds and landing, the operations team can attempt incrementally higher and longer-distance flights. Ingenuity is designed to fly for up to 90 seconds, reach an altitude of 15 feet and travel a distance of nearly 980 feet. Sending commands to the helicopter and receiving information about the flights relayed through the rover, the helicopter team hopes to collect valuable test data about how the vehicle performs in Mars’ thin atmosphere. The results of the Mars Helicopter’s test flights will help inform the development of future vehicles that could one day explore Mars from the air. Once Ingenuity has completed its technology demonstration, Perseverance will continue its mission on the surface of the Red Planet.
How It Works
Before any of that can happen, the Perseverance Mars rover needs to successfully lift off from Earth and begin its journey to the Red Planet. Here’s how the launch is designed to ensure that the spacecraft and Mars are at the same place on landing day.
About every 26 months, Mars and Earth are at points in their orbits around the Sun that allow us to launch spacecraft to Mars most efficiently. This span of time, called a launch period, lasts several weeks. For Perseverance, the launch period is targeted to begin at 6:15 a.m. PDT on July 20 and end on Aug. 11. Each day, there is a launch window lasting about two hours. If all conditions are good, we have liftoff! If there’s a little too much wind or other inclement weather, or perhaps engineers want to take a look at something on the rocket during the window, the countdown can be paused, and teams will try again the next day.
Regardless of when Perseverance launches during this period, the rover will land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, at around 12:30 PST. Engineers can maintain this fixed landing date because when the rover launches, it will go into what’s called a parking orbit around Earth. Depending on when the launch happens, the rover will coast in the temporary parking orbit for 24 to 36 minutes. Then, the upper stage of the rocket will ignite for about seven minutes, giving the spacecraft the velocity it needs to reach Mars.
Like the Curiosity rover, Perseverance will launch from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on an Atlas V 541 rocket – one of the most powerful rockets available for interplanetary spacecraft.
Watch a live broadcast of the launch from the Kennedy Space Center on NASA TV and the agency’s website. Visit the Perseverance rover mission website to explore a full listing of related virtual events and programming, including education workshops, news briefings and conversations with mission experts. Follow launch updates on NASA’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.
The launch of NASA’s next Mars rover and the first Mars Helicopter is a fantastic opportunity to engage students in real-world problem solving across the STEM fields. Check out some of the resources below to see how you can bring NASA missions and science to students in the classroom and at home.
Virtual Education Workshops
Lessons for Educators
Activities for Students
NASA injects $17M into four small companies with Artemis ambitions – TechCrunch
NASA awards millions of dollars a year to small businesses through the SBIR program, but generally it’s a lot of small awards to hundreds of companies. Breaking with precedent, today the agency announced a new multi-million-dollar funding track and its four first recipients, addressing urgent needs for the Artemis program.
The Small Business Innovation Research program has various forms throughout the federal government, but it generally provides non-dilutive funding on the order of a few hundred thousand dollars over a couple of years to nudge a nascent technology toward commercialization.
NASA has found, however, that there is a gap between the medium-size Phase II awards and Phase III, which is more like a full-on government contract; there are already “Extended” and “Pilot” programs that can provide up to an additional $1 million to promising companies. But the fact is space is expensive and time-consuming, and some need larger sums to complete the tech that NASA has already indicated confidence in or a need for.
Therefore the creation of this new tier of Phase II award: less than a full contract would amount to, but up to $5 million — nothing to sneeze at, and it comes with relatively few strings attached.
The first four companies to collect a check from this new, as yet unnamed program are all pursuing technologies that will be of particular use during the Artemis lunar missions:
- Fibertek: Optical communications for small spacecraft that would help relay large amounts of data from lunar landers to Earth
- Qualtech Systems: Autonomous monitoring, fault-prevention and health management systems for spacecraft like the proposed Lunar Gateway and possibly other vehicles and habitats
- Pioneer Astronautics: Hardware to produce oxygen and steel from lunar regolith — if achieved, an incredibly useful form of high-tech alchemy
- Protoinnovations: Traction control to improve handling of robotic and crewed rovers on lunar terrain
It’s important to note that these companies aren’t new to the game — they have a long and ongoing relationship with NASA, as SBIR grants take place over multiple years. “Each business has a track record of success with NASA, and we believe their technologies will have a direct impact on the Artemis program,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter in a news release.
The total awarded is $17 million, but NASA, citing ongoing negotiations, could not be more specific about the breakdown except that the amounts awarded fall between $2.5 million and $5 million per company.
I asked the agency for a bit more information on the new program and how companies already in the SBIR system can apply to it or otherwise take advantage of the opportunity, and will update this post if I hear back.
Watermelon snow shows up on Italian Alps – The Weather Network
Watermelon snow has appeared atop the Presena Glacier in the Italian Alps.
Researcher Biagio Di Mauro, of the Institute of Polar Sciences at Italy’s National Research Council, told CNN his team went to investigate the site over the weekend and encountered an “impressive bloom” — but that’s bad news for the glacier, as it can speed up melting.
Di Mauro says watermelon snow has been unusually common this year.
He plans to study it in greater detail with the help of satellite data.
File photo courtesy: USDA.
WHAT IS WATERMELON SNOW?
While it is a naturally-occurring phenomenon, watermelon snow is becoming increasingly common in the spring and summer because it requires light, higher temperatures, and water to grow.
“Watermelon snow is formed by an algal species (Chlamydomonas nivalis) containing a red pigment in addition to chlorophyll,” U.S. Geological Survey scientist Joe Giersch said in 2018 in an Instagram post of a photo of watermelon snow that he spotted at Glacier National Park.
This pigment protects the algal chloroplast from solar radiation and absorbs heat, providing the alga with liquid water as the snow melts around it. As snow melts throughout the summer, the algae are concentrated in depressions on the snow surface (which further accelerates melting), with small populations persisting in puddles through the fall.”
Watermelon snow is one of nature’s peculiarities. Scientists don’t fully understand it, or the long-term impact it could have on the environment.
Here’s one thing they do know: Watermelon may look neat but it’s not something conservationists want to see.
According to a study in Nature Communications, red algae can reduce a snow’s albedo — i.e., the ability to reflect light — by up to 13 per cent. That means the snow absorbs more of the sun’s energy and melts faster.
Couple that with a stint of above-seasonal temperatures and you’ve got a recipe for accelerated melting.
Oh, and one more thing: If you come across a patch of watermelon snow don’t eat it. You’ll make yourself sick.
Compounds Identified That Halt COVID-19 Virus Replication by Targeting Key Viral Enzyme – SciTechDaily
Four promising antiviral drug candidates identified and analyzed by a University of Arizona-University of South Florida team in the preclinical study.
As the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic mounts, scientists worldwide continue their push to develop effective treatments and a vaccine for the highly contagious respiratory virus.
University of South Florida Health (USF Health) Morsani College of Medicine scientists recently worked with colleagues at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy to identify several existing compounds that block replication of the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) within human cells grown in the laboratory. The inhibitors all demonstrated potent chemical and structural interactions with a viral protein critical to the virus’s ability to proliferate.
The research team’s drug discovery study was published on June 15, 2020, in Cell Research, a high-impact Nature journal.
The most promising drug candidates – including the FDA-approved hepatitis C medication boceprevir and an investigational veterinary antiviral drug known as GC-376 – target the SARS-CoV-2 main protease (Mpro), an enzyme that cuts out proteins from a long strand that the virus produces when it invades a human cell. Without Mpro, the virus cannot replicate and infect new cells. This enzyme had already been validated as an antiviral drug target for the original SARS and MERS, both genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2.
“With a rapidly emerging infectious disease like COVID-19, we don’t have time to develop new antiviral drugs from scratch,” said Yu Chen, PhD, USF Health associate professor of molecular medicine and a coauthor of the Cell Research paper. “A lot of good drug candidates are already out there as a starting point. But, with new information from studies like ours and current technology, we can help design even better (repurposed) drugs much faster.”
Before the pandemic, Dr. Chen applied his expertise in structure-based drug design to help develop inhibitors (drug compounds) that target bacterial enzymes causing resistance to certain commonly prescribed antibiotics such as penicillin. Now his laboratory focuses its advanced techniques, including X-ray crystallography and molecular docking, on looking for ways to stop SARS-CoV-2.
Mpro represents an attractive target for drug development against COVID-19 because of the enzyme’s essential role in the life cycle of the coronavirus and the absence of a similar protease in humans, Dr. Chen said. Since people do not have the enzyme, drugs targeting this protein are less likely to cause side effects, he explained.
The four leading drug candidates identified by the University of Arizona-USF Health team as the best (most potent and specific) for fighting COVID-19 are described below. These inhibitors rose to the top after screening more than 50 existing protease compounds for potential repurposing:
- Boceprevir, a drug to treat Hepatitis C, is the only one of the four compounds already approved by the FDA. Its effective dose, safety profile, formulation and how the body processes the drug (pharmacokinetics) are already known, which would greatly speed up the steps needed to get boceprevir to clinical trials for COVID-19, Dr. Chen said.
- GC-376, an investigational veterinary drug for a deadly strain of coronavirus in cats, which causes feline infectious peritonitis. This agent was the most potent inhibitor of the Mpro enzyme in biochemical tests, Dr. Chen said, but before human trials could begin it would need to be tested in animal models of SARS-CoV-2. Dr. Chen and his doctoral student Michael Sacco determined the X-ray crystal structure of GC-376 bound by Mpro, and characterized molecular interactions between the compound and viral enzyme using 3D computer modeling.
- Calpain inhibitors II and XII, cysteine inhibitors investigated in the past for cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and other conditions, also showed strong antiviral activity. Their ability to dually inhibit both Mpro and calpain/cathepsin protease suggests these compounds may include the added benefit of suppressing drug resistance, the researchers report.
All four compounds were superior to other Mpro inhibitors previously identified as suitable to clinically evaluate for treating SARS-CoV-2, Dr. Chen said.
A promising drug candidate – one that kills or impairs the virus without destroying healthy cells — fits snugly, into the unique shape of viral protein receptor’s “binding pocket.” GC-376 worked particularly well at conforming to (complementing) the shape of targeted Mpro enzyme binding sites, Dr. Chen said. Using a lock (binding pocket, or receptor) and key (drug) analogy, “GC-376 was by far the key with the best, or tightest, fit,” he added. “Our modeling shows how the inhibitor can mimic the original peptide substrate when it binds to the active site on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 main protease.”
Instead of promoting the activity of viral enzyme, like the substrate normally does, the inhibitor significantly decreases the activity of the enzyme that helps SARS-CoV-2 make copies of itself.
Visualizing 3-D interactions between the antiviral compounds and the viral protein provides a clearer understanding of how the Mpro complex works and, in the long-term, can lead to the design of new COVID-19 drugs, Dr. Chen said. In the meantime, he added, researchers focus on getting targeted antiviral treatments to the frontlines more quickly by tweaking existing coronavirus drug candidates to improve their stability and performance.
Reference: “Boceprevir, GC-376, and calpain inhibitors II, XII inhibit SARS-CoV-2 viral replication by targeting the viral main protease” by Chunlong Ma, Michael Dominic Sacco, Brett Hurst, Julia Alma Townsend, Yanmei Hu, Tommy Szeto, Xiujun Zhang, Bart Tarbet, Michael Thomas Marty, Yu Chen and Jun Wang, 15 June 2020, Cell Research.
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