Despite NASA’s Perseverance rover being cooped up inside a spacecraft for another four months as it hurtles toward Mars, the team overseeing its operation is still hard at work preparing for the big day.
To ensure Perseverance functions exactly as it should when it reaches the Martian surface in February 2021, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California is putting the rover’s twin — called OPTIMISM — through its paces here on Earth.
OPTIMISM — short for Operational Perseverance Twin for Integration of Mechanisms and Instruments Sent to Mars — is a full-scale engineering version of Perseverance that’s being used to test hardware and software before the commands are sent up to the rover. Those commands are important, too, as they are key in the mission’s goals to explore the planet for signs of ancient life, and collect rock and soil samples for return to Earth.
The twin rover also offers the perfect way to help the team resolve any issues that Perseverance develops during its Mars expedition. This is why OPTIMISM has been fitted with the exact same wheels, cameras, and computers that help it operate and drive autonomously.
Having successfully completed a number of driving trials indoors, OPTIMISM was recently let loose for the first time in NASA’s “Mars Yard,” a dirt field that simulates the surface of the red planet.
This week the space agency released a video (below) of OPTIMISM’s first drive in the Mars Yard.
“We get to actually drive in the dirt and get this thing dirty and do some mobility testing,” Mars 2020 mobility test engineer Anais Zarifian says in the video.
Perseverance won’t be doing a whole lot until it reaches Mars in around four months from now, so the team will spend the time gathering as much data as possible using OPTIMISM in the Mars Yard.
The NASA Mars mission is one of several currently making their way to the red planet. The others include the United Arab Emirates’ Mars Mission that’s aiming to become the first to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere and its various layers after it arrives early next year, and China’s Tianwen-1 mission, which marks the first-ever attempt to send an orbiter, a lander, and a rover to Mars at the same time.