With its launch just over three months away, NASA’s Perseverance rover is undergoing final critical pre-launch testing and checkouts at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The series of verification and validation activities not only occurred on the rover itself but also on the helicopter it will take with it to the Red Planet.
Presently, all remains on track for a scheduled launch on 17 July 2020 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket from SLC-41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at roughly 09:00 EDT (13:00 UTC).
A launch on that day would result in a landing on Mars on 18 February 2021.
After completing all build operations at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Mars 2020 rover was transported via a C-17 aircraft from the west coast of the United States to its launch site on 12 February 2020.
After arriving in Florida, the rover was transferred to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, where it is now undergoing final pre-launch processing.
The Perseverance mission has been deemed a critical launch operation given it only has a 20 day window in which to launch to Mars before having to stand down for 26 months for the next interplanetary launch window to open.
If Perseverance were to miss the 17 July – 5 August 2020 launch window, it would have to wait until September 2022 for the next opportunity to begin its mission.
The NASA Mars Helicopter will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet. (Credits: NASA/Cory Huston)
As such, workers at the Kennedy Space Center are following all hazardous payload operation procedures as well as social distancing rules to ensure they remain in compliance with CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and government-mandated health operations while continuing to move the mission to launch.
This work included recent activities to measure the mass properties of the cruise stage that will actually transport and provide power to Perseverance and the helicopter while en route to the Red Planet.
Workers also tested out the Mars helicopter’s systems by spinning its rotors at 50 RPM (Rotations Per Minute).
This was the final time the rotors will be tested or operated before the helicopter arrives on Mars next year.
The Mars Helicopter will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet. The twin-rotor, solar-powered helicopter will remain encapsulated on Perseverance after landing, deploying once mission managers determine an acceptable area to conduct test flights.
On the launch vehicle side of the mission, Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance, stated via Twitter there are currently no impacts to the Perseverance mission and that all remains on track from his company’s standpoint to support the launch in July.
Only one mission remains on the Atlas V manifest before operations shift to the launch of Perseverance. Tory Bruno✔@torybruno
Going well. On track https://twitter.com/FilipOlech/status/1244689684581814278 …Filip Olech@FilipOlechReplying to @torybrunoDo you know how mars 2020 is going? Is it far enought to not be delayed until the next launch window like EU-Russia Exomars was?49Twitter Ads info and privacySee Tory Bruno’s other Tweets
That outstanding mission is the USSF-7 launch of the sixth OTV (Orbital Test Vehicle) spaceplane mission for the US Air Force, which will see an Atlas V 501 rocket loft the X-37B space plane for the Air Force into Low Earth Orbit for what is anticipated to be a multi-year mission.
The USSF-7 mission currently has a nebulous May 2020 launch date, with sources indicating an early- to mid-May window for that launch.
Of note, the USSF-7 mission will not use solid rocket motors, making pad turnaround a quicker and easier affair — as United Launch Alliance will not have to clear the corrosive and toxic residue left behind after solid rocket use.
After USSF-7 is away, United Launch Alliance will need the late-May through July time frame to prepare, stack, and test the Atlas V rocket tasked with launching Perseverance to the Red Planet.
This multi-month flow is normal for interplanetary missions that have a short launch window to hit.
ULA routinely reserves more time than necessary in these schedules so the Atlas V can be hauled out to the launch pad to undergo a complete fueling and countdown practice run that includes everything but igniting the RD-180 engine on the Atlas V booster.
These tests are known as Wet Dress Rehearsals as they include a complete fueling of the vehicle as will occur on launch day.
This test helps United Launch Alliance ferret out any issues with the rocket or ground systems that can be repaired and updated without impacting a mission’s launch date.
Perseverance will begin its journey to Mars the same way its sister rover Curiosity did in November 2011, blasting off from SLC-41 under the power of the RD-180 engine and four side-mounted Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket boosters.
The Centaur upper stage, flying in its single-engine configuration, will then take Perseverance and the helicopter into an initial Earth parking orbit, before firing up its engine once again for the Trans-Mars Injection burn, which will place the rover into a heliocentric, Mars intercept orbit.
Perseverance will then spend the next 7 months cruising to Mars, before slamming into the Red Planet’s atmosphere — slowing with the aerobraking and a supersonic parachute before drop dramatically from its entry capsule and free-falling toward the Martian surface.
A retro-rocket platform will then fire to ease Perseverance into a stable hover 7.5 meters over the Martian soil. From there, a sky-crane winch will lower the rover on to Mars.