Latest mission to Mars offers hope for manned flights

Latest mission to Mars offers hope for manned flightsIn late July, NASA launched the Mars 2020 satellite that will place a ground rover named Perseverance on the surface of our planetary neighbor early next year.

Data from this unique space mission will significantly add to the scientific knowledge base from previous space missions.

In the early 1960s, the United States and Soviet Union made several unsuccessful rocket launch attempts to reach the planet. In late 1964, the U.S. Mariner 4 mission successfully completed a journey to Mars – coming within 10,000 miles.

The first close-up photographs of Mars showed that the surface was pockmarked with craters. Measurements from the space probe indicated the atmospheric pressure on the Martian surface was extremely low, less than one percent of Earth’s surface pressure.

By the mid 1970s, NASA’s Viking mission was sending orbiting satellites to the red planet. Surface landing probes launched from these Mars orbiters provided scientists with valuable data about the makeup of the planet.

Remote-controlled rovers

The next major advance in the Mars exploration program occurred in the late 1990s, when remote-controlled four-wheel rovers were released to travel across the Martian surface. The first one, Sojourner, was about the size of a small coffee table and traveled 300 feet in eight days.

Space exploration science has come a long way in the last two decades. Perseverance is about the size of a large pickup truck and weighs more than 2,200 pounds.

I recently shared some pictures and information about the Mars space launch with my twin granddaughters. They thought Perseverance looked like “a giant Lego toy with a lot of cameras.” We discovered that some of those cameras were actually laser-shooting instruments geared toward learning more about the planet’s geology and astrobiology.

One fascinating feature of Perseverance is the small helicopter, named Ingenuity, stored inside the rover’s belly. About the same size as the entire 1990s rover, this drone is solar-powered and has a wingspan of about four feet once deployed.

Ingenuity is scheduled to attempt several powered and controlled flights. The data acquired during these tests will determine if this is a feasible method for transporting small payloads. Similar drone vehicles could also be used to scout the best driving route for future rovers that will travel long distances across the planet.

Breathable air

Mars’ atmosphere is more than 95 percent carbon dioxide and, therefore, uninhabitable by humans. An experiment aboard Perseverance may determine if it is possible to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. If feasible, manned Mars missions could be equipped to manufacture oxygen for rocket fuel and breathable air.

After watching a few NASA videos about Perseverance, my granddaughters revised their description of the rover to “a giant Lego toy with superpowers.” We are looking forward to watching a live performance from Mars next February.

I’d like to thank Sadie and Sienna Steiner for their help in putting this article together. They are entering 5th grade this year. By the time they graduate from high school, NASA plans to have manned spaceflights to Mars.

For more about the Mars 2020 mission, visit

Woody Whitlatch is a meteorologist retired from PG&E. Email your questions or comments to