The long-awaited day has arrived: today Mars rover Perseverance takes to the skies. NASA’s flagship product will be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 1:50 p.m. CET on an ATLAS-V rocket. The robot cart has been assigned an important task: to find out if there may have been life on Mars. At the same time, NASA is also looking ahead with the mission. Because Perseverance brings along some special materials that are particularly important for future march travelers.

Space suits
Perseverance will be equipped with small pieces of material that will make space suits. That is very important, because NASA would like to find out what future march travelers can best wear. While Perservance itself explores the Jezero crater and takes samples, the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) instrument will thoroughly study five small pieces of spacesuit material plus a piece of an astronaut helmet visor. The measurements will then be compared to measurements taken on Earth.

The materials being studied will eventually be used for the exterior of a future Mars spacesuit most exposed to radiation. “The outer layer of space suits often consists of ‘ortho-fabric’,” says researcher Amy Ross. “This material consists of Nomex fibers (a fire resistant material often used in firefighting clothing), Gore-Tex (which is waterproof and breathable) and Kevlar (which is often used in bulletproof vests). We also test samples from Vectran. We currently use this for the palms of spacesuit gloves. This material is cut resistant, which protects against injuries on sharp edges. ” Perseverance will also bring Teflon samples. “We’ve been using this in space suits for a long time and we often use gloves,” Ross continues. “The material is very smooth, which makes the material more difficult to tear. We also provided this sample with a dust-resistant coating. ” Finally, Perseverance wears a piece of polycarbonate from which the helmet and visor are made.

This image shows the different materials that will be tested on Mars by the SHERLOC instrument on board Mars Rover Perseverance. 
On the left you can see where these substances will be processed in a future space suit. 
Image: NASA

Although the applicability of these materials has already been confirmed during other space travel, it remains to be seen whether they also function properly on Mars. “On Mars, radiation will cause the chemical composition of the materials to degrade,” Ross explains. “We would therefore like to find out exactly how long all these materials will last on Mars. Do they meet the requirements, or should we develop new materials? ” The researchers are not entirely on virgin land. Because the materials have of course already been extensively tested on earth, bathed in ultraviolet radiation in vacuum chambers. These results will then be compared to what SHERLOC will reveal on Mars.

What the researchers have taken into account, among other things, is dust. Because as previous Mars rovers have already experienced, it can get quite dusty on the red planet. A global dust storm turned Mars rover Opportunity even fatal. And so this is something to take into account. “We have already developed good seals that prevent dust from getting into the folds around the shoulders, wrists, hips, thighs and ankles,” says Ross. “But we continue to look for new ways to protect the spacesuit from Martian dust during long missions. For example, we know that a coating works better than a woven material, where a small space remains between the fibers. However, the two Teflon samples that go with the upcoming mission will provide us with more insight. ”

As can be seen from this, one space suit is not suitable for every space trip. Thus, space suits used in the ISS or on the Moon cannot be used indiscriminately for missions to Mars. “It really depends on where you are going and what you are going to do,” says Ross. “The ISS suit is specially designed for microgravity. In addition, the suit is exposed to solar radiation and atomic oxygen. The moon does not have the atomic oxygen problem, but is somewhat heavier in radiation than Mars. You are in fact quite close to the sun and there is no atmosphere as is the case on Mars. Still, the moon is a good test bed. The environments of the moon and red planet are not exactly the same, but the challenges in terms of sustainability – materials that will be exposed to low pressure in a dusty environment for a long time – are comparable. It means that Mars spacesuits will look more like the ones of the moon, but less like the suits that astronauts wear in the ISS. ”

Moon space suit

In October last year, NASA unveiled the space suit that future astronauts who will travel to the moon will wear. The white suit may look like the suits astronauts wear on spacewalks while working on the International Space Station, but appearances are deceiving. The new space talk is a strong improvement on predecessors thanks to technical ingenuity. For example, astronauts who are allowed to wear the suit will be able to perform much more complex tasks. This suit also has a better fit. In addition, NASA also presented a bright orange spacesuit that will be worn during launch and in the Orion spacecraft. The suit provides protection and oxygen to the astronauts in case the capsule pressure drops and is designed to keep astronauts alive for at least six days.

As this shows, plans to put humans on the Moon and Mars are becoming wonderfully concrete. Anyone who thought that manned journeys to the red planet were just strong stories is wrong. The materials for the spacesuits for future Mars pioneers are already being extensively tested. So Mars rover Perseverance will not only look for traces of former life on the red planet. He will also find out what future life on Mars needs when the first humans set foot on Mars.

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