Mars can be a terribly windy place, it turns out.
The Perseverance rover landed on the red planet in February 2021, carrying a weather station called the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), among other instruments. This instrument includes two wind sensors that measure speed and direction, as well as several other sensors that provide weather metrics such as humidity, radiation, and air temperature.
Pebbles carried aloft by the Red Planet’s strong gusts recently damaged one of the wind sensors, but MEDA can still track the wind at its landing site in Jezero Crater, albeit with reduced sensitivity, said José Antonio Rodriguez Manfredi, principal investigator from MEDA, opposite Space. com.
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“Right now the sensor is limited in its capabilities, but it’s still providing velocity and direction magnitudes,” wrote Rodriguez Manfredi, a scientist at the Spanish Center for Astrobiology in Madrid, in an email. “The entire team is now retuning the retrieval process to get more accuracy from the undamaged detector readings.”
The two ruler-sized wind sensors on Perseverance are surrounded by six individual detectors that aim to provide accurate readings from all directions, depending on the material (opens in new tab) from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which manages the rover.
Each of the two main wind sensors is attached to a cantilever that can unfold to move the sensors away from the rover while driving, as the car-sized Perseverance affects wind currents through its own movements through the thin Martian atmosphere, JPL officials explained.
Like all instruments on Perseverance, the wind sensor was designed with redundancy and protection in mind, Rodriguez Manfredi noted. “But of course everything has a limit.”
And for an instrument like MEDA, the limit is more demanding, as the sensors must be exposed to environmental conditions to record wind parameters. But when stronger-than-expected winds lifted larger-than-expected pebbles, the combination resulted in damage to some of the detector elements.
“Neither the predictions nor the experience we’ve had on previous missions have foreseen such strong winds or so much loose material of this type,” said Rodriguez Manfredi. (He has also been the principal investigator of another temperature and wind sensor on NASA’s InSight lander on the Red Planet since November 2018 and is expected to complete his mission this year.)
He added it was ironic that the sensors were damaged by wind or “exactly what we were looking for”.
Perseverance landed on Mars on February 18, 2021 and, along with a helicopter named Ingenuity, is exploring an ancient river delta that billions of years ago may have been rich in microbes.
In addition to measuring wind, weather and rock composition, the rover is collecting the most promising material to cache for a future sample return mission, which aims to send samples back to Earth in the 2030s.