South African space agency providing support to Nasa’s latest Mars mission

30th July 2020 By: Rebecca Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

South African space agency providing support to Nasa’s latest Mars mission

The Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars 2020 spacecraft (including the Perseverance rover) within its nose cone, standing at Launch Complex 41 just hours before lift-off.
Photo by: Nasa

The South African National Space Agency (Sansa) is supporting the launch and early flight phase of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa’s) Mars 2020 mission, which is carrying the Perseverance rover to the Red Planet. The mission lifted-off from Space Launch Complex 41, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the US state of Florida, early on Thursday afternoon, South African time.

“Our team at Sansa has been part of pre-testing and configurations of the rocket launch,” reports Sansa Space Operations communications practitioner Dikeledi Mogorosi. “We will be tracking the rocket for a number of days and our team will be in constant communication with Nasa for further instructions.”

Sansa Space Operations, based at Hartebeesthoek, west of Pretoria, provides ground station support for space launches by a number of leading space agencies and companies, including Nasa. It also supports in-orbit testing of spacecraft; satellite tracking, telemetry and control; mission control and space navigation services.

The Mars 2020 spacecraft is composed of the rocket-powered Mars descent stage, the aeroshell that will enclose and protect the rover and its descent stage (the aeroshell in turn is composed of the backshell and the heat shield, the latter protecting Perseverance when it enters the Martian atmosphere), and the solar-powered ring-shaped cruise stage, as well as the rover itself. Perseverance is the heaviest and largest as well as the most sophisticated rover Nasa has yet sent to Mars.

The spacecraft will travel 467-million kilometres to Mars, on a voyage that will take about seven months. Perseverance will land in Mars’ Jezero Crater on February 18 next year. The prime mission of the rover is to search for signs of ancient microbial life. It will also undertake climatological and geologic research and will be the first mission to collect and cache Martian surface material for subsequent return to Earth (by another spacecraft) for much more detailed analysis.

Perseverance is also carrying a small helicopter. Called Ingenuity, the 1.8 kg flying machine is a technology demonstrator to test if powered flight is practical in the very thin Martian atmosphere. Its first flight is expected to reach an altitude of about one metre and last for 20 to 30 seconds, but that would make it the first aircraft to fly on another planet. Should Ingenuity’s first flight be a success, further test flights will be made, each longer and further away from Perseverance.