Science & Technology

How the pandemic is changing the protocol for NASA’s Mars landing — and how to watch it happen

Veteran spacecraft engineer Chris Voorhees has witnessed six Mars landings in the course of his career, and he’s playing a role in the next one as president of a Seattle-based engineering firm called .

But even though First Mode has been helping NASA ensure that its Perseverance rover will get to the surface of Mars safely on Thursday, Voorhees will experience it in the same way millions of others around the world will: from home, watching a live stream via YouTube.

At least he’ll be munching on . “I feel weird if I don’t do it,” Voorhees said.

This Mars mission is already weird enough — and not just because it would be the first mission to , and the first to .

Because of the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic, the hundreds of scientists and engineers behind the have had to work almost exclusively from home. On the big day, only a minimal crew of ground controllers will be on duty at NASA’s in Pasadena, Calif.

Mallory Lefland, , will be there as part of the mission’s team for entry, descent and landing, or EDL.

“Most people won’t be on lab, working their shift, until 24 hours before landing,” she said last week during a mission preview hosted by Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Whether they’re working at JPL or working from home, the people in charge of the $2.7 billion mission will serve mostly as spectators during the final minutes of the rover’s seven-month, 300 million-mile journey to Mars.

The capsule containing the rover will be on its own as it goes through a sequence known as the “seven minutes of terror.” Because of the finite speed of light, it takes more than 11 minutes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth. That means the rover will have finished its landing sequence before the team at JPL even knows it started.

On the way down, the capsule will have to endure temperatures of more than 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit as it slows itself down from a speed of more than 12,000 mph. It’ll have to pop off its heat shield and unfurl a parachute while it’s falling at supersonic speeds. Thanks to the work done by Lefland and scores of others, the spacecraft has been programmed to guide itself to an acceptable landing site within Mars’ Jezero Crater, which is thought to have been flooded with water eons ago.

The craziest part of Perseverance’s plunge comes when a descent stage fires up eight rocket thrusters and basically hovers above the landing site while the 1-ton rover is lowered to the surface at the end of a set of cables. When the rover touches down, the cables will be cut, and the “sky crane” will fly itself away to a crash landing.

The MR-80B thrusters on the descent stage were built for NASA at manufacturing facility in Redmond, Wash. “Those are probably the most impressive engines we do out of the Redmond site,” said Fred Wilson, director of marketing and business development for the Redmond operation.

Members of Aerojet’s 420-employee Redmond team also built the thrusters that will help guide the capsule through the initial stages of its descent. Still more Aerojet thrusters came into play during earlier phases of the Perseverance mission.

“I would guess maybe half of the people on our site have had some involvement in this mission, whether you’re someone working on the contracts or accounting side, or somebody who was machining a part, or buying a procured item, or the inspector looking over somebody’s shoulder. … A lot of people have touched this program one way or another,” Wilson said.

Aerojet delivered its thrusters to NASA long before COVID-19 hit, but social distancing is nevertheless affecting how employees will experience the landing. Only about a third of Aerojet’s Redmond workforce is on site.

Traditionally, Aerojet hosts a . “This is the whole show for the Redmond team,” Wilson said. But this time, employees will have to watch the show on their own — assuming they’re not hard at work building the thrusters for .

First Mode is also spreading out its 80-employee workforce, and that’s not just because of social distancing. Voorhees told GeekWire that over the past year, the three-year-old company has established an office in the Australian city of Perth to capitalize on the .

For more than a year, First Mode — which traces its origins to an asteroid mining venture called Planetary Resources — has been working on a for South Africa’s Anglo American mining concern.

First Mode’s engineers are also to study a metal-rich asteroid, as well as on a . But for now, the Perseverance mission to Mars tops the to-do list.

Several First Mode employees, including Lefland, worked on the mission’s — and on the procedures for anticipating potential problems and evaluating mission performance.

Lefland is due to be on console alongside her former JPL colleagues for the landing, and the protective measures put in place due to COVID-19 have added plenty of peculiarities to the job. “It’s been a strange experience, to say the least,” Lefland acknowledged.

It’s not just that there’ll be fewer people at mission control: They’ll also be more isolated. “You need to make sure that no person is a single point of failure,” Lefland explained. “We’re now worried about an entire shift going away because someone gets sick on that team, and you’re worried that everyone will get sick. So we really had to segment people.”

For that reason, there’ll be strict limits on contacts between team members involved in different phases of the mission.

Lefland will be watching for any anomalies that might occur as the Perseverance spacecraft transitions from its cruise phase to entry, descent and landing.

“This happens about 45 minutes before entry, and I spend a lot of time sweating all of the weird things that can happen when you do that transition within the software,” she said. “Once we pass that transition, and nothing goes wrong, I will take a very deep breath and be able to move on.”

Just when Lefland is breathing a sigh of relief, the real job will begin for the scientists associated with the Perseverance rover mission.

This is the first Mars mission for , a senior principal physicist at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory. Elam specializes in X-ray spectrography, which is why he was brought onto the team for Perseverance’s .

PIXL is designed to use X-ray readings to characterize the structure and chemical composition of rock samples on a microscopic scale. Data from the instrument could point to potential evidence of fossilized Martian microbes, or at least point to samples worth bringing back to Earth for further study.

Before the pandemic hit, Elam enjoyed meeting up with his fellow scientists down at JPL — but now the team gets together almost exclusively through teleconferencing tools. To keep up, Elam has set up his computer with multiple monitors in the basement of his Seattle-area home, where he’s less likely to disturb the rest of his family. “I’ve had about four Webex’s going on this computer at the same time,” he told GeekWire during a Zoom chat.

On one hand, Elam admits this landing will be different from what he expected to experience when he joined the PIXL team more than eight years ago. “It’s very disappointing not to be together with them for the landing — and, you know, to celebrate — but also to work together in person,” he said.

On the other hand, working from home has its advantages, especially for a mission that’s . “I love the fact that I have control over my environment,” Elam said. “I’m with my family. I’m at my home. I have my setup here, that’s set up the way I want it to be.”

Meanwhile, , an associate professor at Western Washington University who’s part of the team in charge of the rover’s camera system, will be watching from her home base in Bellingham. During a mission preview presented by WWU, she said she’ll feel an extra thrill on behalf of her students when she sees her instrument come to life on Mars. Some of her students have gone on to become part of the Perseverance team.

“I obviously have a real, deep personal connection to these cameras and this mission,” she said during an online preview presented by WWU, “and I’m so excited that we have some students from Western here that’ll have that same connection.”

Will the lessons learned during this socially distanced Mars mission end up being applied to future space odysseys? It’s too early to tell — but First Mode’s Voorhees is sure that the spirit of exploration will survive the pandemic, and thrive.

“For me, it’s a little bit like the Olympics,” he said. “The Olympics is a very cool thing that happens every four years, and this is a very cool thing that happens every 26 months. And it just doesn’t get old. Just because you’ve done it before doesn’t mean it’s not exciting the next time. It doesn’t mean it’s not scary the next time. It doesn’t mean you’re not holding your breath the next time. It just never gets old.”

will begin live coverage of the Perseverance rover landing at 11:15 a.m. PT Thursday, with touchdown expected at around 12:55 p.m. PT. Today there’ll be a televised mission update at 10 a.m. PT, followed by a noon PT news conference focusing on the search for traces of ancient life on Mars. Consult NASA’s website for a related to the Perseverance mission.

Seattle’s Museum of Flight will present its own  at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, with commentary by First Mode’s Maggie Scholtz; Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Bill Cahill; and Geoff Nunn, the museum’s adjunct curator for space history.
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