Space exploration, such as NASA’s rover missions and the SpaceX rocket launches, is one of the most daring and ambitious areas in the field of science today, but it could never be possible without the ingenious engineering that facilitates it. One of the most recent feats in space exploration was the Mars Perseverance Rover tasked with the mission to explore one of the planet’s craters called Jezero.
The rover itself is manufactured by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California with a similar but updated design from the previous Mars rover called Curiosity. It’s a six-wheeled machine that weighs a little over one ton with the height of 2.2 metres, length of 3 metres, and width of 2.7 metres.
The Perseverance Rover’s Seven Main Instruments
Perseverance is equipped with seven scientific instruments that are specially engineered state-of-the-art sensor modules designed for use on Mars with the goal of testing, sampling and analyzing the geology and atmosphere of the planet and any potential biological signatures.
Although NASA is U.S.-based, engineers from institutions around the world have worked on the rover and its seven main instruments, each of which is pictured below and covered in the next sections.
An annotated computer-generated image of the Perseverance Mars Rover, whose annotations name the seven main scientific instruments mounted on the vehicle
Image credit: NASA
The Mastcam-Z instrument is a mast-mounted camera system tasked with the job of taking panoramic and stereoscopic photographs of the surface of Mars. It uses multiple cameras that can zoom and focus with great detail on a three-dimensional photograph in order to analyse the mineralogy on the surface of the planet, spotting important areas of interest such as possible clues that suggest the presence of life or water both past and present.
This module weighs 4 kilograms, has the power of 17.4 watts, and can achieve a 360-degree view horizontally and 180 degrees from straight down to straight up. On average, the data that Mastcam-Z can send to Earth per one Mars day (roughly 24 hours and 40 minutes) is around 150 megabits.
MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamic Analyzer) is a meteorological system created to take measurements of the Martian weather, atmospheric pressure, temperature and humidity but also the wind speed and direction.
The instrument can also measure the concentration of dust particles in the atmosphere and the radiation on the surface that comes from the sun and from space itself. MEDA weighs 5.5 kilograms and has a maximum power of 17 watts (this depends on the requirements that the measurements demand).
A close-up view of an engineering model of NASA’s Mars Perseverance instrument, SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals)
Image credit: JPL-Caltech, NASA
The SHERLOC module (abbreviated from Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) is a robotised turret-mounted instrument designed to investigate potential materials that have been altered by watery environments in order to find possible signatures of past Martian microbial life.
The system is mounted on the rover’s robotic arm and contains multiple cameras, spectrometers, and a laser. The main camera of the instrument is a black and white context camera, while the secondary camera (appropriately named WATSON) is a colour camera for taking close-up pictures. The module is named after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective character because of its crucial abilities to detect details and intricacies—in this case, intricacies taken from scanned samples via the complex optical sensor instrument system.
The full name of the MOXIE instrument is Mars Oxygen In-situ Resource Utilization Experiment. This module contains a valuable experiment tasked with testing the possibility of oxygen production out of the carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere for future manned missions on the planet both for breathing and as a fuel for return missions.
The experimental module weighs 17.2 kilograms and when active it uses 300 watts for regular operation. MOXIE can produce up to ten grams of oxygen per hour.
A photograph of the sensor head of NASA’s instrument, PIXL (the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry), which was taken before it was integrated with the Perseverance Rover’s robotic arm at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California
Image credit: JPL-Caltech, NASA
PIXL is the rover’s Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry. It’s a module that houses an x-ray spectrometer that can identify chemical elements at a very small scale. It can analyse particles as small as a grain of salt for the purpose of detecting signs of past microbial life on the red planet by looking for changes in texture and chemical composition of rocks and soil.
The x-ray beam of the device is similarly focused like a traditional laser beam and has multiple degrees of freedom, as it can be pointed in multiple directions through a small motorised system. The device itself weighs 4.3 kilograms and can transmit up to two megabytes of data to Earth each day.
RIMFAX—the Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment—is the first radar wave tool sent to the surface of Mars on a NASA mission. It is a ground-penetrating radar that works in the frequency of 150 to 1,200 megahertz and is designed to detect potential deposits of underground ice, water, and salt. Its penetration depth can reach over ten metres depending on the composition of the area being tested. It weighs 3.3 kilograms, uses five-to-ten watts for power, and it samples data for every ten centimetres that the rover travels.
SuperCam is a very detailed camera that can scan particles from up to seven metres that are as small as the point of a pencil. As most of the rover’s instruments, SuperCam is also tasked with scanning for Martian life; however, its secondary goal is to detect harmful materials in the dust of the planet that might harm potential human explorers.
The camera also has the ability to study how atmospheric particles interact with solar and space radiation with the combination of the camera’s optical sensor and an integrated laser. SuperCam weighs 10.6 kilograms, consumes 17.9 watts of power, and returns 15.5 megabits of data per experiment.
An illustration that depicts the Perseverance rover and its accompanying helicopter
Image credit: NASA
What the Perseverance Rover Means for Engineering
Although space exploration is most commonly associated with physics and astronomy, it’s impossible to imagine the functionality of any of these instruments without the innovative engineering put into their design and manufacture.
As with many previous technologies that have spawned from space exploration needs at NASA, these rover technologies will give engineers new platforms and ways to test and innovate for the consumers in the areas of material science, medical engineering, and, of course, automotive and aerospace engineering.