Radio Astronomy Podcast: Perseverance, 200 sols on Mars

NASA's Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter scout have been on Mars for 200 sols. We find out what they've been up to.

NASA’s Perseverance rover has been on Mars for 200 sols (Martian days). In that time, it has driven across the surface of Mars, taken its first sample of Mars rock and even set down the Ingenuity helicopter scout. We take a look at what the rover has already achieved in the last few months, and what it still hopes to accomplish.

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Transcript

Chris Bramley Hello and welcome to Radioastronomy, the podcast from the makers of BBC Sky at Night Magazine. You can subscribe to the print edition of the magazine by visiting www.skyatnightmagazine.com or to our digital edition by visiting iTunes or Google Play.

Ezzy Pearson Greetings, listeners, it’s time for the October episode. I’m a news editor Ezzy Pearson, and I’m joined in the studio today by editor Chris Bramley.

Chris Bramley Hello.

Ezzy Pearson Coming up later, we’ll be telling you all about the Perseverance rover and explaining how you can see Jupiter in our stargazing tip of the month. But before that, we’re just going to take a moment to talk about a very exciting announcement that should have come out a few days ago. And that is the winners of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year Awards 2021. And there are some absolutely amazing entries. It’s always a bit weird talking about, you know, a photography competition on a podcast. But they are there are some absolutely amazing winners. And I highly recommend you go and take a look at some of them.

Chris Bramley Absolutely. I mean, here they are, these stunning images. Can you just hear how good they are Ezzy? They really are just stunning. And they represent so much input from the from the photographers, so much dedication has gone into not just capturing the data, but also processing them afterwards. It is such a big part of astrophotography. Yeah. And all the categories are fantastic, aren’t they?

Ezzy Pearson The one that I’m always particularly interested in because it’s new category. It’s only its second year, which is the Annie Maunder Prize for imaging innovation, which is where the judges ask people to not take their own images but to take images that have been taken by professional telescopes. So whether that’s the Hubble Space Telescope or something like Juno or Cassini.

Chris Bramley Yes. Or even an earthbound professional observatory, here on Earth.

Ezzy Pearson Yes, even Earthbound observatory and process them in a new and interesting, exciting way. And so there’s one of them, which is a lovely picture of Jupiter, but the colours are completely unlike anything that you’ve seen before. The reds have been made really this sort of glorious magenta and pink. And it just makes it gives us a whole new view of another planet.

Chris Bramley Marvellous view and then the second one… and this year they chose to I think they obviously had so much difficulty finding the right one. But the second one is amazing. It reminds me of one of those games used to get in stockings to move, move, move the tiles around to get to get them all aligned, and show the picture in the right way. But it’s just amazing the way and it forces you to look in at the detail and each in each of the squares. So this is really you have to study it that bit harder to work out what it is.

Ezzy Pearson So it’s like a picture of Saturn that’s all been cut up like a jigsaw. And it’s very odd.

Chris Bramley It’s a lot of fun.

Ezzy Pearson But really interesting as well. So yes, absolutely. If you want to get a look at those pictures, we have them all on our website, www.skyatnightmagazine.com. We also have them in the magazine as well in the October issue. So pick them up there if you want to have them in print. And if that’s got you thinking about, maybe you’d like to enter next year’s competition yourself, but you were your astrophotography skills aren’t quite up to the task. Then don’t worry, because we’ve got you covered. We’re currently running the Masterclass Astrophotography series, which is three virtual talks, walking you through every aspect of astrophotography. So our first lecture is going to be on the 23rd September by Tom Kerss and he’ll be telling you what you can achieve using the very device you might actually be listening to this podcast on right now, a smartphone. Then on the 28th October, we have Charlotte Daniels explaining how to take and process skyscapes using a DSLR camera. And then finally, on the 25th November, Peter Jenkins will be walking you through the process of using specialist Astro cameras to take stunning images of the night sky, even from urban areas. The talks cost £15 each, or you can buy a bundle of all three for £36. And if you’re listening to the podcast a little bit late, if you’ve missed out on one of the talks, don’t worry. All of the webinars will be available as a recording as well. For more information or to book tickets, visit www.skyatnightmagazine.com/virtual-events and we’ll have all the details for you there.

Ezzy Pearson But for now, we’re going to be taking a look over at the Red Planet and the Perseverance rover, which landed there back in February earlier this year.

Chris Bramley Yes. As a yeah. It’s been quite an exciting time for Perseverance coming up, hasn’t it? It’s done some amazing stuff and some really exciting developments in its travels and investigations on the Red Planet. But let’s just rewind a little bit first and give it a little brief overview about the mission. It launched on the 30th July 2020, landed on Mars on 18 February 2021. Perseverance is a car sized rover, got six wheels. It’s modelled very closely on the Curiosity rover. It’s almost identical, but it’s got one important addition, which is a drill on an extendable arm which comes out the front of it. It’s got seven other primary payload instruments, 23 cameras, two microphones, and also it had a little helicopter on it. And we’ll talk about that a little bit. So Perseverance was launched for Mars with four main science objectives. First one, look for habitability, identifying past environments that were capable of supporting life, searching for signs of that life in those environments, bio signatures, and particularly the specific types of rock that are known to have preserved signs over time. It’s going to the other thing it was I went there to do was to cache samples from these rocks. So collecting core samples or bits of samples of soil, storing them on the Martian surface and ready for collection in the future and bringing back to Earth for analysis in laboratories here on Earth. And the last thing it went there to do was test the ability to make oxygen from ingredients that it’s found on Mars itself. So when it touched down on Mars, it landed in a in an area called Jezero Crater. I found out the other day, do you know where Jezero comes from? The name Jezero? Why it’s called that?

Ezzy Pearson I don’t know, actually.

Chris Bramley Well, it was it was a vote, I think. And NASA selected Jezero from Bosnia. In the Bosnian language Jezero means lake. so that’s one of the that’s one of the reasons. Jezero crater is obviously very dry now, like the rest of Mars. But it looks to have had a it looks to have been a very wet environment billions of years ago. They think it was a lake for a very long time in Mars’s geological history. It’s a 45 kilometre wide bowl, basically. So this this thing was basically lake for a very long time. And there’s evidence from satellite imagery showing that there was a river delta, what looks to be a very, very, you know, very suspiciously like a river.

Ezzy Pearson It definitely does. If you’ve seen pictures, it’s like, yep, I’m not a hundred percent sure what a river delta is, but I know it’s one of those.

Chris Bramley Absolutely. Yeah. And extensive other river features and what looked to be sediments in the west of the crater, which Perseverance is currently trundling through now.

Ezzy Pearson Yes. So as you said, it landed on Mars back on the 18th February 2021, and it landed through basically the same way that the Curiosity rover did, which is first it did aerobraking. So that’s using the planet’s atmosphere to bleed away the majority of its speed as it’s coming in, because you have to travel quite fast to get from Earth to Mars in a reasonable amount of time. Then it used a parachute to slow it down the rest of the way. But finally, to kind of bring it into the surface, nice and calmly it used this thing called a skycrane, which is basically like a platform that’s got a whole bunch of thrusters. And hanging underneath it. You have your rover and you land the rover on its wheels on the surface of Mars.

Chris Bramley It’s brilliant. It’s exciting to watch.

Ezzy Pearson It’s one of those things that now because we’ve done it twice. So it’s, you know, like this. That’s how you land Rovers, it’s really straightforward. But it’s actually when you stop and think about it it’s ridiculous. I think the head of JPL at the time when somebody suggested it, it said it’s a crazy idea, but it’s the right kind of crazy.

Chris Bramley And the cool thing was it had a sky crane, had cameras on it as well. So it was a there was a really good video of it being lowered.

Ezzy Pearson down to guess what they call the seven minutes of terror, which is basically during the entry descent and landing, otherwise known as EDL, it takes about seven minutes to get down to the surface. And there’s nothing that people back on Earth can do about it. It’s going to go, it’s going to do its thing and it will land or it won’t. And you’ll just have to hope. And this was the first time that somebody thought to put on some cameras that could… well I say “they thought”. It was the first time that we had the technology capability to sort of have these cameras going in full time, real time and transmitting back. And it’s absolutely brilliant. And I highly suggest you look up the videos of that. And so it landed and everything went really well. Skycrane is particularly good because it means you can really pinpoint your landing, which meant that they managed to get a Perseverance much closer to this this river delta, these cliffs that they want to investigate then they might have been able to do if they were just, you know, throwing down something and hope it landing in the right place. And it landed, unfolded and spent its first couple of days kind of checking out all of its systems whilst it was on the surface making sure everything was working. And then on the 4th March 2021, it went for its first ever drive. This was just, you know, going a couple of metres to test that everything was working. But on the date that we were recording this, it is sol number 200 for Perseverance.

Chris Bramley So that’s, that’s the two hundred days or so.

Ezzy Pearson Two hundred Martian days.

Chris Bramley Martian days. Slightly longer days longer than Earth days aren’t they?

Ezzy Pearson Martian days are 24 hours and thirty seven minutes, I think, which causes quite a few problems if you’re working on a 24 hour schedule back on Earth but people do manage it. And so today is number 200 for us. And in that time it has gone 2.42km, which compared to how far and how fast the rovers beforehand went, is absolutely astounding. So Curiosity could manage about 20 metres per hour, kind of on average. It could it did have a much higher top speed, but that was actually kind of like its average speed. Perseverance, it’s more like one hundred and twenty metres per hour, so that’s six times as much.

Chris Bramley That’s pretty pacy isn’t it?

Ezzy Pearson It’s motoring along. And one of the reasons why it’s so much faster is because it’s pretty much autonomous. So what that means is that the people back at NASA, the people controlling it, rather than getting all of these pictures in of the rover of what it’s looking at and telling it exactly where it needs to go and how it’s going to get there, they just say, I want Mr. Rover, I want you…. Sorry, Mrs. Rover. All Martian rovers are all female. That was set by Donna Shirley back in the 1990s with Sojourner. And so they tell the rover that I want you to go over here. And then the rover just works out how it’s going to get there and it will make its own route and drive its own path and work out where the obstacles and how to go round them. And so it’s a very intelligent rover.

Chris Bramley Presumably that’s why it’s got so many cameras. It’s using those it’s using the those images to as the basis for the for it’s kind of autonomous decision making.

Ezzy Pearson Mm hmm. So yes. And. It’s it that that’s how it’s managing to go, quite such a clip. Also, you know, we’ve just got better at making things go faster. Yeah, that was one of the things that sort of when Perseverance first started appearing, I didn’t quite realise. But it’s basically it’s like Curiosity Plus. It has all of the things that Curiosity had on board of it, as well as this kind of thing to create these caches of rocks that it’s going to be getting anyway. Currently at the minute Perseverance is it arrived at somewhere where it’s relatively nice and flat and easy to land on, but nice and easy to land on is quite often very boring. When you’re coming to talk about science, you want to be looking at cliffs and boulders and rocks and all of those big, spiky, dangerous things that you don’t want to land on. So it is currently making its way over to the cliffs that mark the edge of that delta. And it’s currently going around sort of a big area of rough terrain. It’s sort of skirting along the edge of another cliff that is probably a bit too steep for the rover to go down and heading towards these cliffs. And so hopefully should be going towards those. I think it’s sometime next year, 2022.

Chris Bramley Wow that’s quite a long journey isn’t it?

Ezzy Pearson So there are about two kilometres away. But that’s by my estimation, by looking at the maps.

Chris Bramley How is you know, you I could travel it 100…

Ezzy Pearson 120 metres per hour.

Chris Bramley I mean, how is it what does it power? What’s powering it? What’s giving it that it the juice? It’s not petrol is it.

Ezzy Pearson I know it has something called a radio thermal generator, which is basically you’ve got a big lump of radioactive material that is basically acting like a hot brick.

Chris Bramley A hot potato!

Ezzy Pearson And then you have something called a thermocouple device, which is basically, it’s a device that can turn heat directly into electricity. But they’re not the most efficient thing in the world. But it works. And I think with Perseverence, this is definitely the case with Curiosity. But it’s it doesn’t generate enough power to completely power the rover as it’s going. So it has to sort of stop at night and charge up its batteries and then go again.

Chris Bramley Right. OK, so it’s like a nuclear powered robot.

Ezzy Pearson I always when you say it’s like a nuclear power robot, I’m sort of like imagining, you know, like sort of like Back to the Future thing of like there’s a fusion reactor or something on the front. But no, it’s just a hot brick.

Chris Bramley Yeah it’s basically. Yeah. That’s the process that’s producing the electricity.

Ezzy Pearson Yeah, exactly. They also learnt a couple of other things from, from building the Curiosity rover mainly to come down to making Perseverance is wheels better. Curiosity has had some terrible, terrible problems.

Chris Bramley It really got some damage didn’t it?

Ezzy Pearson Yeah, they started falling apart a lot faster than people were expecting them to. And it’s OK. It can still go, but they have to be a bit careful about exactly what terrain they go over. And it’s slowing things down a bit. Yeah. So Perseverance has larger wheels in terms of their diameter, but they’re much narrower and they also have a wavier tread pattern, which apparently helps it get grip more.

Chris Bramley And isn’t part of the tread pattern. Isn’t it made of titanium?

Ezzy Pearson Yes. Well, yeah, there’s lots of titanium bits on Perseverance. It’s currently driving up towards the cliffs at the base of this delta. It’s then going to drive along those cliffs until it gets to an ancient shoreline and it will be taking, you know, rocks and creating these caches of the entire way as it goes along. And then finally it will come up over the crater rim and explore the surrounding plains. And I think the idea is to leave the sort of the main cache that a future mission is going to come along and pick up on that plane, because it’s a bit easier to sort of get there. But, yeah, I don’t think they’ve quite announced to those plans. They’ve probably started thinking about those sorts of things at NASA, but they haven’t announced anything yet.

Chris Bramley When I first read about the plan for the for the for the caches and retrieving them, you know, there were these diagrams of… I think they’re like titanium tubes aren’t they? and this is like priceless collections of soil samples that are you kind. Come back to Earth, you know, I’m a 30 year timescale, and yet they just they just leave them strewn around them around the Martian surface. Hang on a sec? Shouldn’t you be a bit more… put them away, hide them somewhere or something. Put a flag there or something.

Ezzy Pearson Yeah, I think they are going to be a bit more… It’s not just like ahh we’re just going to throw this over there… I think the idea is to like leave them sort of grouped together. I think they are going to have more than one caching site. So dropping them off en route just in case something goes wrong with Perseverance, because as good of a track record as JPL and NASA have with their rovers, it’s not perfect. And they do sometimes get stuck.

Chris Bramley Yeah, that’s right. And it’s a long way from home, isn’t it?

Ezzy Pearson Yeah. You can’t you can’t send an engineer to go and fiddle with it, basically.

Chris Bramley Indeed. Yes. I think it’s one of the things that that Perseverance has really helped with this time is the helicopter, Ingenuity. Because after its initial test flight, it’s now it’s now passed all its tests with flying colours. And it’s now an essential part of the mission. It’s providing a scouting facility for Perseverance. Looking ahead, seeing any dangerous patches of terrain that’s coming up. Spiky rocks, sand traps, for instance, like that that could bog it down. And that’s perhaps why progress is being quite so fast, because it’s got these extra eyes in the sky able to look around and feedback to Perseverance and  the mission team back on Earth to help and plan ahead a little bit more.

Ezzy Pearson Yeah, because that’s one of the big advantages of something like Ingenuity, which is that the helicopter scout. Beforehand, the only sort of reconnaissance we have is these orbiters, with very low resolution images or what the rover can see and it can only see a short way in front of it. And Ingenuity is kind of like bridging the gap between the two and helping fill in some of the gaps.

Chris Bramley That’s right. Yeah. I mean, it’s an amazing story, ingenuity and historic achievement as well, because it’s the first powered flight on another on another planet. That happened back in April, didn’t it? On the 19th April was its first take off and successful flight. The first powered flight on another planet lasted 40 seconds. Since then, it’s done 13 other flights, individual flights have covered hundreds of metres. So it flies about 200 metres each time. Most times it was about that. I think the longest one was 600 metres when it did. And you said we thought Percy’s speed is quite good. This Ingenuity flies around 10 mph. So it’s even more rapid still. Which is pretty good. So the flights, the individual flights last around three minutes so far has logged about 25 minutes of flight time and travelled a total distance of 3km, which is, you know, a huge achievement for this. But it’s the very first time. It’s a proof of concept. Designed so well, even if it was going to work.

Ezzy Pearson Yeah. So that means it’s faster than a person. I think.

Chris Bramley It’s about the speed of running.

Ezzy Pearson I couldn’t go three kilometres in 25 minutes! That’s quite interesting because it’s like if there was a person on Mars, they’d be faster than a rover but they wouldn’t be faster than Ingenuity.

Chris Bramley Yeah. I mean you think of what is this thing like? I mean, I always think it’s like a drone. It’s like a drone, basically. If you have ever been out at a beauty spot and you’ve heard that slight buzzing and looked up and there’s a drone there taking getting some awesome video shots. That’s the kind of thing to picture in your head. If you’re thinking “what does this thing look like”, it’s about that size. It’s pretty tiny. It weighs 1.8kg. And the body of it is about 15 by 20 centimetres in size. It was the one crucial difference is because the Martian atmosphere is so rarified and thin, it’s only about one percent of Earth’s atmosphere. Basically the thickness of Earth’s atmosphere or density, I should say, of Earth’s atmosphere. That means that Ingenuity’s rotors have to be that much bigger. So they’re about 1.2m in diameter and it’s got two sets of rotors that spin in opposite directions. And the spin is ten times faster than helicopter rotors need to spin on Earth to give it that lift in the very rarified atmosphere of Mars. And it’s similar to Perseverance in another way in that it’s largely independent. So it makes its decisions by itself, guides its own flights. And that’s obviously very necessary because otherwise there would be a 15 minute lag in communications between the helicopter and Earth. And when you’re flying it, even flying at 10 miles an hour, you need to make decisions. You need to decide where you’re going and pretty much instantaneously. So that helps it. And it has an array of sensors as well that help it. That give it the data to base decisions on. But no other scientific instruments, obviously, because it was a test bed really. But now with its success, NASA engineers have the data from the flights and, you know, proof of concept. And they’re already working on next generation successors. They’re looking to make something that’s much more functional and considering a craft that is significantly larger something, you know, around the weight of 20 to 30kg range, perhaps, and which will be able to carry sizeable payloads. So, yeah, this could be this could be the last or, you know, we could see any other kind of lander mission to a suitable planet with a with enough atmosphere would have would have a kind of you know, this would be a it would have a scout flying as part of it, you know, as kind of a matter of course.

Ezzy Pearson Yeah. I think one of the really big advantages that something like Ingenuity or a helicopter will have is that it doesn’t care about how rough the terrain is. So for instance, I was looking at… because there’s loads of these really cool visualizations maps showing you exactly where Perseverance is and where it’s gone, and there’s one called the Mars 2020 Mission Tracker, which shows you where Ingenuity has gone. And there was one of the flights that it did sort of crossed over this triangular patch of rough terrain. And that was like one three minute flight. And it has taken Perseverance 70 sols to go around that.

Chris Bramley Goodness.

Ezzy Pearson Yeah. So and also, if you know, this was a dedicated mission, you could have landed ingenuity in that that rough patch where a rover couldn’t have gone. And I think that’s what makes it really exciting is they can get into the bits where a rover can’t. So that’s going to be really exciting. And I do hope they actually, you know, get one of those missions off the ground at some point.

Chris Bramley Yeah. And hope so. Yeah.

Ezzy Pearson Yeah. There’s currently I know there’s one a similar mission that’s currently planned to go to Titan called Dragonfly.

Chris Bramley That would be good there.

Ezzy Pearson And that’s coming up within the next… Titan being one of the moons of Saturn. So that’s coming in the next decade. And there’s also been various people saying similar things about in the atmosphere of Venus, which has been getting a bit more traction in the last year with the potential sighting of phosphine in the atmosphere.

Chris Bramley Trying to work out exactly where that’s coming from.

Ezzy Pearson Maybe rovers are done. Maybe it’s now the age of the helicopter.

Chris Bramley Indeed. Indeed, yeah.

Ezzy Pearson However, the rover still is currently still reigning over on Mars and perseverance has been hard at work whilst it’s been over there. So whilst it’s been doing it’s 2.4kilometre long drive, it has started taking some of these samples and catching them or at least attempting to. So Perseverance only has 43 sample tubes. That’s as many as it’s got. And again, these are the titanium sample tubes. They’re about 10cmlong, I think, and that they’re white and gold and they look very, very sophisticated. But actually, the white has a very practical purpose. It’s to stop them getting heated by the sun and potentially changing the composition of what’s inside. So it’s basically trying to keep what’s inside as hermetically sealed as possible away from the atmosphere where it can be… As it goes into the tube. Is it how they want it to come out again at the other end when we eventually pick these up. However, first you need to get the sample into the tube. And this is where, unfortunately, Perseverance has come a-cropper. So the first attempt to take one of these samples happened back in August. And at first everybody was very excited. It seemed everything had gone to plan. The the procedure is all automated and it all seemed to have gone according to plan. It said, yes, I’ve taken the sample, I’ve put it in there, and I’ve now stored this tube perfectly fine. And then the next day, Perseverance set back a bit more data after have been investigating exactly how much sample had it taken, how much of rock had it taken from the surface to Mars. And unfortunately, the answer was zero. So, yeah, there was there was nothing in the tube. And this led to a lot of people wondering, like what’s happened? Did it not go in the sample tube in the first place? Did it get lost somewhere on the rover? Has an alien come along and stolen it? I think that one was a bit unlikely, but some people did wonder. But actually what had happened was it turned out the rock… They drilled into the rock that had all gone to plan, like they could see the hole, but the place where they decided to drill was just way too crumbly. And instead of grabbing a lump of rock, it just crumbled to dust. And there hadn’t been anything in the sort of sample arm when it picked up. And so it hadn’t transferred anything into the tube. There was no checks like that at that point. There is now.

Chris Bramley So it wasn’t it wasn’t Perseverance fault. It was Mars’s fault! It was the rock.

Ezzy Pearson It was Mars’s fault. It was Mars has a has a long and storied history of being very uncooperative when it comes to rocks. So back in the early 2000s, there was the Phoenix Lander which tried to scoop up some of the dust off the surface and basically the ground kept sticking to the scoop rather than going where it wanted to go, and they couldn’t clean it off properly. And more recently, the Insight Lander, which it had a heat probe that was supposed to drill itself into the surface of Mars. But again, Mars was too crumbly. It couldn’t get decent purchase. And so they have. Now officially given up on trying to get that in, that is one of those things that sort of gives you a case for sending humans to Mars.

Chris Bramley Because it would be so much easier.

Ezzy Pearson Yeah. You know, like if “oh, the Heat probe won’t go in, I’ll hit it with my hammer,”, you know, and or “I’ll just like, oh, I’ll just clean off that scoop”. There we go. Nice and clean”. Yeah. So there is like a JPL and NASA have done some amazing work with getting these machines to do some amazing things. But there is some stuff that humans are just better at doing. Yes. But anyway, so after this this kind of they worked out exactly what had happened. They’ve added some new steps to the automated procedure of creating a sample. So now the rover visually confirms that there is a sample in the tube before it gets stored, because once it gets stored, it’s not coming out again until it’s being cached and then it’s not getting opened again until it’s back on Earth. And you’ve only got 43 shots. So they really want to make sure that it counts. The mission goals is to get at least ten samples. Right. But obviously they want to get more than that. Mm hmm. But currently four of the sample tubes that have been have been stored away. Two of them are soil samples, in inverted commas. One of them was the one that happened at the beginning of August, and the other one was the one that happened on the 10th September, which was much more successful. So that one, they did manage to confirm that there was… And so on the 10th September, they went to a much more solid looking rock, one that they were pretty sure was going to be hard enough that the drill would work and get the sample and everything would work. And that was a rock named Rochette. Right, because they always named their rocks. And usually when you look into it, it’s something terribly nerdy. I don’t know where Rochette comes from.

Chris Bramley Well, I thought, you know what I thought because it’s a briefcase sized rock. I thought Rochette sounds like the model name of a briefcase. You can just imaging “the new Rochette, perfect for your business wear”. I reckon if it was that kind of thing, if you look if you like, if you Google Rochette, it’ll be Mars rock. And then the results will also be types of briefcase.

Ezzy Pearson Other briefcases are available. But yes. So on the 10th September, it should take its first sample. It’s all been stowed away. Everything looks like it’s groovy. There was also two of the samples have been taken, something slightly different. One was a gas tube, which was literally just sampling gases from the air. And the other one was a what’s called a witness tube, which sounds very sinister. But actually what it is, is it’s got a certain material inside the tube and it’s designed to capture the particulates in the air. So so it’s designed to get the dust that’s already in the air so they can see what’s in the atmosphere. And those are the sort there’s five of these witness tubes on Perseverance and it’ll take them at various points. And that’s to help calibrate and give a full picture. So you’re not just looking at the rocks. You’re also looking at the atmosphere and what’s going on around it. And actually, probably generally we’ve seen in the history of missions that have failed, in an inverted commas, failed to take samples even when they do come back to Earth, people have managed to get something out of them. So the first Hayabusa mission went to an asteroid. It was supposed to return samples, but everything went wrong with Hayabusa. It did manage to get home, but it had like sort of nanograms of dust on board. But still, you know, there’s been dozens of papers that have been done on that. And I’m sure the same will happen with this so-called empty tube. There’ll be something in it that’s highly useful, or they managed to get a couple of grains of dust or something. So hopefully that will still come home and still hopefully help us get a better picture of what’s going on Mars. So, yes, the plan is now it’s going to spend the next couple of years going around Mars, creating these caches of rock and leaving them around the surface. What the people at NASA and ESA and JAXA, which is the Japanese Space Exploration Agency, are working on the follow up mission, which is to send a fetch rover, it’s called, that will run around the surface, collect up the caches and then launch it into orbit where a third mission will come, a long scoop up this and return it to Earth and somehow return that in a way that. It will deal with something called planetary protection.

Chris Bramley This is all going to be autonomous, isn’t it? It’s all going to be robotic. Um, the so when you say when we’re talking about Mars ascent vehicles, we’re talking about fairly small sounding rocket sized. Yeah. Spacecraft. I’m not talking about massive, human sized… You know, rockets big enough to launch a human.

Ezzy Pearson Yeah it is. It is it is quite fortunate that if you’re just launching a couple of tubes of rock, you need a much smaller rocket than if you’re trying to launch. A big, heavy human with all of their….

Chris Bramley Life support,.

Ezzy Pearson Life support, and that’s what it’s called.

Chris Bramley Interesting as well that in that same stage is when the so when these ascent vehicles are sent into orbit around Mars, then that they have to be picked up by a… What’s it? Like a very ferry satellite or something. Don’t they.

Ezzy Pearson So if there’s a third mission, which is basically the idea is, it’s partly it’s just easier to separate these two things out rather than putting it trying to work out everything with your weight allowance on one mission. And also it means that you’ve got two parts which are completely separated. So you’ve got the rocket coming up from the surface of Mars. And then it will be completely enclosed by this third mission, which means that anything that comes back to Earth won’t have any Mars on the outside. Because apparently Perseverance is the cleanest thing that’s ever gone into space. They had scrubbed every inch of this because you don’t want to be going looking for signs of life on Mars.

Chris Bramley Well, actually…

Ezzy Pearson You go through all of this and find out that what you found are signs of life on earth that have been to Mars. That will be interesting to see. So probably it will be at least another decade before these samples actually make their way home. But it is an exciting time to me to be looking towards Mars and the Red Planet.

Chris Bramley Now it’s time for the stargazing tip of the month. This October, Jupiter will be out shining in the night sky every evening. The planet is an easy spot, even from light polluted skies, as it’s one of the brightest things to see after dark to find it in the evening skies look to the south. It’ll already be above the horizon as the sun sets throughout the month. On the first, it’ll reach its highest point at around 10 p.m. when it’s 22 degrees above the horizon. Jupiter reaches its highest point or culminates to use the astronomical term slightly lower as the month progresses and reaches the highest point slightly earlier each night. The planet is clearly visible to the naked eye. But if you’ve got a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you should be able to make out the round disc of the planet and might even catch a glimpse of the four Galilean moons. Jupiter is also currently come to by another planet Saturn. Although Considerably dimmer than Jupiter, Saturn is still a bright magnitude 0.5. And on the 1st of October it’ll also be in the south around 18 degrees above the horizon and about three degrees to the right of Jupiter. Though the pair will be visible throughout the month, You might want to put the 14th October into your diary. As on that date, they’ll skirt close to the waxing gibbous moon for a great photo opportunity.

Ezzy Pearson So that’s it from us this month. You can read about the Perseverance mission or see the winners of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year Awards in the October issue of BBC Sky Night Magazine, where we also learn what astronomy can be done even from light Polluted Skies, investigate the current condition of the Hubble Space Telescope and take a tour around the highlights of the autumn sky. And that’s not forgetting our regular sections that will help you unlock the wonders of the night sky, find the right equipment to observe it with and discover the best things to see after dark this month. From all of us here at BBC Sky Night Magazine, goodbye.

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Chris Bramley Thank you for listening to this episode of the radio astronomy podcast from the makers of BBC Sky at Night Magazine, which was produced in our Bristol studio by Brittany Colley. For more of our podcast, visit our website at www.skyatnightmagazine.com or head to ACast, iTunes or Spotify.