In late July, NASA launched Perseverance rover to Mars to hunt for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet. As the robot astrobiologist floats through space on its way to Mars, its twin is getting ready to mirror the rover's mission right here on Earth.
Perseverance's Earthly twin is gearing up to set out to the 'Mars Yard' this month, where it will simulate the mission that Perseverance will engage in over 44 million miles away.
Its name? OPTIMISM.
Perseverance's near-identical twin is a full-scale engineering version of the Mars rover, with six wheels, cameras, and a computer system that allows it to autonomously drive around the simulated Martian landscape.
The down-to-Earth robotic counterpart is dubbed OPTIMISM, which stands for Operational Perseverance Twin for Integration of Mechanisms and Instruments Sent to Mars.
"Perseverance's mobility team can't wait to finally drive our test rover outside," Anais Zarifian, the mobility test bed engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a recent statement.
"This is the test robot that comes closest to simulating the actual mission operations Perseverance will experience on Mars – with wheels, eyes, and brains all together – so this rover is going to be especially fun to work with."
OPTIMISM passed its first driving test on September 1, and the team of engineers hope to begin test-driving it next week in the Mars Yard. The Mars Yard is a simulated Martian landscape, complete with red dirt, rocks, and other obstacles that the Perseverance rover might encounter while rolling around the Red Planet.
In one way, Perseverance's Earthly twin can be thought of as the "evil" twin to the Mars rover.
The reason is that once Perseverance lands on Mars in February, 2021, the rover's team will not be able to physically work on the car-sized robot. That means, is something goes wrong, any fix needs to be remote — and accurate. By creating an Earthly counterpart, the team can find and fix any hardware or software problems the rover may have before they begin transmitting commands to the Mars machine.
"The Mars 2020 Perseverance test bed team's motto is 'No optimism allowed,'" Matt Stumbo, the lead for the OPTIMISM rover on the test bed team, said in a statement.
"So we named the test rover OPTIMISM to remind us of the work we have to do to fully test the system. Our job is to find problems, not just hope activities will work. As we work through the issues with OPTIMISM, we gain confidence in Perseverance's capabilities and confidence in our ability to operate on Mars."
As it stands today, OPTIMISM has the same mobility system and top driving speed (0.094 mph), as well as the same robotic "head," a remote sensing mast, as Perseverance. But a second building phase at the beginning of the new year will see OPTIMISM acquire all of the science instruments, cameras, and computer brains of its Martian counterpart, too.
Like any pair of twins, the two do have some, slight differences. OPTIMISM is connected to an umbilical cord of a sort, a nuclear battery where it gets its power. The cord also connects OPTIMISM with the ground team who will be sending it commands, rather than having to send commands through a network of antennas all the way to Mars.
Just as Perseverance will rendezvous with its robotic counterpart Curiosity, which has been roaming around the Red Planet since 2012, OPTIMISM will work side-by-side with Curiosity's own Earth twin, MAGGIE (Mars Automated Giant Gizmo for Integrated Engineering).
"The Curiosity mission has learned lessons from MAGGIE that were impossible to learn any other way," Stumbo said. "Now that we have OPTIMISM, the Perseverance mission is well equipped to learn what they need to succeed on Mars."
The two pairs will be tethered to one another, mirroring each other's actions. Hopefully, the Earth team won't go rogue.