WVU professor assists with Mars Perseverance mission

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – NASA rover Perseverance successfully landed on the planet Mars Thursday afternoon after starting the journey in July of 2020 from the Kennedy Space Center. WVU professor of geology, Dr. Kathy Benison is one of the experts that will help select soil and rock samples to bring back to Earth for research.

According to Benison, tweaks were made to navigation software that made the landing very smooth and the rover snapped pictures as dust settled at the landing site.

“For me to see the picture,” Benison said,” The picture that was sent back still has dust in the air from where the rover landed.”

Perseverance is now in a crater on the Martian surface conducting system tests and establishing initial communications with mission control. Additionally, computer scientists are off-loading landing software and replacing it with mission specific software.

“It looks like that crater was filled with water and was a lake at one point,” Benison said,” We can tell that because there’s a channel that looks like an empty river channel that flows into it.”

There are two missions for the Perseverance- prime and extended.

The duration of the prime mission is one year of Mars time which equals about two years on earth. The extended mission will be conducted, if possible after.

“That time is going to be spent in the crater itself, but making our way out of the crater,” Benison said,” After that as long as the rover is still healthy, it will explore the west side, outside of the crater.

Perseverance has 43 sample tubes onboard. Five tubes are called “witness” tubes used to check for contamination and 38 live tubes for samples. The samples are the size of an index finger, according to Benison.

“Geologists like me will go to the post office and mail hundreds of pounds of rock back to my lab at WVU,” Benison said,” So, this is really a tiny amount of samples, but there are a lot of analysis we can do on Earth with a tiny amount of samples.”

These tubes are expected to be returned to Earth on another mission planned for the next decade.

Perseverance also has a four pound helicopter on board, several different cameras and sensors to measure Martian air.

“It’s not really there to do a lot of science, it’s there to test the methodology,” If it can fly, then I think in future missions they’ll expand upon it so it can be something that is used to do science.”