NASA Perseverance Mars Rover: To Séítah and Back

NASA Perseverance Rover Artistic Rendering

Artistic rendering NASA’s Perseverance rove at Mars’ Jezero Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Six months ago, we began the dedicated investigation of the Jezero crater floor, and now in December 2021 we are more than halfway through this first science campaign. Since our first sampling experience at Roubion and our first sample pair from the Rochette rock, we have collected a second sample pair, this time from a region of the crater floor called Séítah at the Brac rock. As we now gear up to acquire our next, and third, sample pair, in Séítah, we can take a look back at the steps that brought Perseverance and its team here. 

Though we have only been operating Perseverance since landing 9 months ago, we have been planning for the mission for far longer. Our planning started in the summer of 2019, when the science team began creating a geologic map of Jezero crater using orbital data, to establish a geologic framework that would help us test our hypotheses on the ground. We still use this map every day in our daily operations and science discussions, constantly referencing our working geological model for Jezero and updating it based on our latest observations.

Mars Perseverance Sol 135

Mars Perseverance Sol 135 – Left Navigation Camera: A throwback to sol 135, when Perseverance was still on the Crater Floor Fractured Rough unit and had yet to enter Séítah. This Navcam image looks across the Séítah “thumb” and spans Artuby ridge, at the top of this image, which Perseverance drove along en route to our current location in Séítah. Just to the left of this image is where we would make our first sampling attempt at Roubion on sol 164. In the middle of this image is where we would acquire our first sample pair from the Rochette rock on sols 190 and 196. In the right part of this image, but hidden by higher topography, is where we would acquire our second sample pair from the Brac rock on sols 262 and 271. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

From the spring of 2020 until shortly before landing, the team created the strategic mission plan that would guide our daily rover operations even to this day – despite not knowing then where Perseverance would actually land! We sketched out different drive paths and sample collections based on hypothetical landing locations, using information and our knowledge from orbital data only. For example, if we landed on the delta, how far would we drive down onto the crater floor? What rock types would be important to sample, and which locations seem most promising for sampling? These early discussions focused not on creating the exact schedule that Perseverance would follow, but on developing the science priorities and strategies that would facilitate the efficient decisions we would have to make once Perseverance was roving on the ground.

Perseverance's First Road Trip

Perseverance’s First Road Trip: This annotated image of Jezero Crater depicts the routes for Perseverance’s first science campaign (yellow hash marks) as well as its second (light-yellow hash marks). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Soon after landing, we applied this strategic plan to our now-known landing location at Octavia E. Butler Landing and got to work constructing a comprehensive campaign plan to explore the Jezero crater floor – this time armed with new images from the surface of Mars. We identified the major locations of interest to visit with Perseverance, planned the strategic drive routes between these locations, outlined the characteristics of desired anticipated samples, and constructed a high-level calendar projecting when we aimed to achieve campaign milestones. This campaign plan is what has been guiding Perseverance’s exploration for the past half year – of course with variations as we see or learn new things about the Jezero environment around us.

As the Campaign Co-Lead for the Crater Floor Campaign, it has been an exciting and humbling experience to see how our plans have evolved from high-level strategic concepts a few years ago to the detailed, daily schedule and plans that we create every day. In this first year in Jezero, we have studied a rich geologic history that we could not observe from orbit, and we have also seen how our early predictions compare to the realities of operating a rover, which will inform our planning for future campaigns. Mars is in many ways unpredictable, but that just makes exploration all the more exciting and rewarding.

Written by Vivian Sun, Science Operations Systems Engineer, Staff Scientist at NASA/JPL.

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