By Josh Korsness, Mechanical Systems Engineer
Mark your calendars for February 18th! After cruising through interplanetary space for six months at speeds nearing 50,000 mph, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission—carrying the rover Perseverance—is nearly ready to land on the Red Planet. She carries with her the most advanced instrumentation and cameras ever sent to Mars. One could even argue that Mars 2020 is the most complicated and cutting-edge interplanetary spacecraft ever flown. Take the instrument SuperCam for example, which can fire a laser from 20 feet away to detect Martian soil that may preserve signs of past life. Or Mastcam-Z, which will take high-resolution 3D images of rocks to determine optimal drilling and sampling candidates. These instruments are feats of technology, requiring intense collaboration between scientists and engineers while pushing the boundaries of complexity in spacecraft. However, I’d like to talk about a system that does little to push technological boundaries. In fact, the system I’m most excited about on Mars 2020 is perhaps the simplest on the entire spacecraft.
EDL Cameras – More Than a “Nice to Have”
Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) is the terrifying process of taking a spacecraft from space and putting it safely on the ground. I was responsible for the mechanical integration of EDL Cameras into Mars 2020. The EDL Cameras system is a suite of six cameras that will document key events in the EDL sequence, such as parachute inflation and rover deployment. The primary purpose of EDL Cameras is to record video.
That’s really all there is to know about EDL Cameras. They record video.
These cameras aren’t actively used to assist Mars 2020 with EDL. The footage isn’t broadcasted live back to Earth. They don’t have powerful lasers, spectrometers, or expensive sensory. In fact, the EDL Cameras are commercial off the shelf (COTS) products comparable to a GoPro. The only capability they have is recording video, then storing that footage on the rover’s memory for eventual transmission back to Earth. No more, no less.
Working on the mechanical integration of EDL Cameras was basically my first “real job” out of college. I remember being envious of my coworkers who got to work on more critical systems like parachutes, mobility, and instrumentation. I often heard EDL Cameras described as “nice to have, but not critical.” There is certainly useful engineering data that will potentially be extracted from the footage, and it will be interesting if we catch anomalies that aren’t communicated via telemetry. But the truth is that EDL Cameras aren’t critical to the success of Mars 2020. So why are we even bothering to fly EDL Cameras? I came to realize there is a very simple answer to this question that is impossible to argue against: because they’re awesome. I mean that in the most literal sense.
A Responsibility to Inspire
EDL Cameras will provide a collective sense of awe to the entire world. That feeling of wonder is the true return on investment for the public. The data returned by Mars 2020’s instrumentation will largely only be understood by scientists and engineers. It’s difficult to get a class of 5th graders excited by strings of 1’s and 0’s, plots of pressure vs. time, and tables showing the chemical composition of rocks. But anyone can understand a video. Anyone can understand at a high-level what it means to land on another planet, and it won’t be hard to grab a 5th grader’s attention when the video is of a giant robotic SUV using rockets and parachutes to land on Mars. The footage captured by EDL Cameras will potentially inspire thousands of students to pursue careers in STEM, an invaluable return for NASA.
Despite little technical information conveyed, the video of Curiosity landing on Mars has over 5.5 million views on YouTube.
Videos like these build support for space exploration and indirectly lead to more missions being funded. But more importantly, as “rocket scientists”, we have a responsibility to get the public excited. Space exploration should be shared, not guarded. It’s a privilege to work on something that has the potential to mold the next generation of explorers.
This serves as an important reminder for engineers and scientists: to inspire is in itself, an accomplishment.
The landing of Perseverance will be an epic event resting on the shoulders of brilliant scientists, engineers, technicians, and support staff. But make no mistake, this is a triumph of the American public and global space community at large. I am proud to have been a part of the team that made EDL Cameras a reality. The world deserves to get excited by Mars. Let’s give them a show.
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