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To get to mars on time, NASA must show 'perseverance'

NASA is working to make sure its biggest mission in years isn't derailed by Covid-19.

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In late March, a NASA technician held his smartphone very, very close to the Perseverance rover at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, filming every angle of the car-sized robot, and streaming it live as six senior engineers watched from home. This is how NASA prepares for a can't-miss Mars mission during a pandemic.

Because those six engineers on the Perseverance team could not be there physically, the space agency had to improvise. So it conducted its first-ever virtual walk down, using WebEx, a video conferencing app.

The Perseverance rover will seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth.NASA

In response to the novel coronavirus, NASA enforced a mandatory telework at its facilities that came into effect on March 20. But the space agency was still determined to launch the Perseverance rover to Mars within its launch window of July 17-August 5, 2020.

The Perseverance launch to Mars is arguably NASA's biggest mission in the last several years and for the next few years. Exploring Mars has been an ongoing mission for NASA, and while the InSight lander's findings about ancient Marsquakes were revealing, the rover's mission is even more ambitious. It will "seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for a possible return to Earth." But this mission has to kick off this summer, before the window shuts.

No time like the present — If NASA were to miss that launch window, they would have to wait until September 2022 in order to try again.

Perseverance is currently the only mission with "orbital constraint," meaning that its launch to Mars depends on planetary alignment between Earth and Mars, which takes place during three crucial weeks every 26 months.

As a result of its time sensitivity, NASA has determined that the launch of the Perseverance rover is the space agency’s highest priority at the moment.

A technician points a smartphone camera at NASA's Perseverance rover during an inspection at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The imagery from the phone was seen live by mission engineers watching from their home offices in Southern California.NASA/JPL-Caltech

"While we still have our sights set on Mars, our feet are firmly planted here on Earth," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. "We see the strain this pandemic is placing on our families, our healthcare workers and our livelihoods.

"We hope that when we leave Earth this summer, and when the Perseverance rover lands on Mars next February, our collective efforts to persevere through these challenging times will inspire the nation."

“I’m an engineer but I’m also a parent.”

But under current working conditions, the already pressurized task of launching a spacecraft is even tougher.

“It’s been an adjustment for everybody,” Ny Sou Okon, a flight system engineer on the Perseverance team, tells Inverse. “I’m an engineer but I’m also a parent.”

Okon has two boys, a four-year-old and an eight-year-old who is doing distance-learning from home. She has a laptop and a desktop monitor set up at her home office space, which she shares with her husband.

Between running tests on the rover and web meetings, Okon also has to take breaks to assist her son with his own Zoom conferences or prepare lunch. And sometimes after putting her kids to bed, Okon is right back at work to make up for the time lost during the day.

“I prefer routine but with the current situation, I have to be able to adjust to each day,” she says.

NASA's Perseverance rover is currently undergoing final testing at the Kennedy Space Center.

Last month, the Perseverance rover was due for an all-day testing, which Okon had to monitor online from her home. “[My son] had a lot of screen time that day,” she admits. “I wouldn’t want my child to be watching TV all day, but you have to forgive yourself as a parent in these situations.”

NASA has transitioned 90 percent of the Perseverance team to telework, while eight mission-critical team members are performing final processing and testing of the rover at the Kennedy Space Center.

An engineer who was needed on site for the Mars Perseverance rover walks past the mission countdown.Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

As a result, team members are coordinating the work with one another, while also communicating with the members on site, which can be overwhelming to jump in and out of one teleconference to the next.

“There’s a time period before launch, and also before you land, and that whole time period is where you would be doing a lot of rehearsals,” Alicia Allbaugh, who leads the team for the Curiosity rover, currently roaming Mars, tells Inverse.

Something they have to figure out — Allbaugh recalls what it was like launching Curiosity in 2011, and can’t imagine what it will be like for the Perseverance team to do the same work while working from home.

“That’s usually a lot of effort, even without social distancing,” Allbaugh says. “Usually you would have everyone in the room, watching the data come in. That’s something they will have to figure out, how to do that remotely.”

The Curiosity team is currently operating the rover on Mars, and Allbaugh says some of the challenges lie in communication and having to navigate through several virtual meetings at the same time.

If you’re not able to make a meeting in time in person, other team members will likely notice your absence. However, in the virtual world, Allbaugh has had trouble getting through two back-to-back meetings where she’s usually late to the second one.

“I adapt having to jump between assessment and planning, which are happening at the same time,” Allbaugh says. “Usually they’d realize you’re not in the room.”

Counting down to July — With less than 90 days left to launch, the NASA Perseverance team is working as though they are on track to launch the rover to Mars, and doing so on-site.

"We’re not sure how it’s going to play out...we might be back at work by then," Okon says. "We gotta work as if we’re on track to launch."

"We’ve all worked really hard to get there."

Perseverance is expected to land on the Mars Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021.

Once it lands on Mars, Perseverance will look for signs of habitability on the Martian surface and past microbial life, collecting samples of rocks and soil and setting them aside for a future mission to return them back to Earth.

The mission will also test out conditions for possible human exploration of Mars by trialing a method of producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, characterizing environmental conditions such as water and dust on Mars, and looking for resources.

The Perseverance rover is set to spend at least one Martian year on the planet — the equivalent of 687 days on Earth.

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