Gearing up for Landing Day—USGS Mars Rover Team (Dr. Ken Herkenhoff)

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Gearing up for Landing Day - An Interview with USGS Scientist and Mars Rover Team Member, Dr. Ken Herkenhoff

USGS Astrogeology has been involved in the Perseverance Mission from selecting the landing site and generating a map of the area that is on board the rover to rover operations once Perseverance lands on the red planet. Learn more about Astrogeology's involvement from scientists who will be living on Mars time to work with Perseverance daily!

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Date Taken:

Length: 00:07:19

Location Taken: Flagstaff, AZ, US

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Hi everyone. My name is Railyn Stokes and I'm a management analyst and communication team lead at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. Today I'm joined by my colleague Dr. Ken Herkenhoff. Hi, I'm Ken. So Ken is a planetary scientist at the Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. He has been involved with every Nasa Rover mission ever since to Mars beginning with Mars Pathfinder in 1997. He was a science lead for the microscopic imagers on the Mars Exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity. He's on the ChemCam, MastCam, MALI, and MARDI Instrument teams for the Curiosity Rover currently exploring Gale Crater and he's the MastCam-Z instrument team for Perseverance currently headed to Jezero Crater. So today we are meeting to kind of go over a couple of  questions um about Perseverance and your involvement with the rover missions throughout the years. So Ken Thank you so much for joining us. Alright my pleasure. So our first question since you've been  involved with Nasa Rovers, Nasa Rover missions sent to Mars over the years. What sets the Mars 2020 mission apart and what are you most excited about? Well, the most exciting part about the Perseverance Mars 2020 mission is that it's hopefully the first step in sample return and returning samples from Mars has long been a goal of the planetary science community because once we get those samples back um the entire terrestrial science community can analyze those samples uh with the latest state of the art equipment in their labs um and really the hope is that we're gonna learn a ton about Mars from those samples. So it's really exciting to be able to join the team that is going to be involved in selecting those samples and eventually hopefully bringing them home. Yeah. That is really exciting, so we know that the USGS mapping group here at Astro has helped to produce the map on board the Mars 2020 spacecraft, and that will help perseverance to land safely at Jezero Crater. Can you explain to us how that works um and how targeted landing has improved over the course of these missions? Yeah it's and and that map is it's more than just a simple map. It's a digital terrain model, which gives the rover knowledge of the topography of the landing site so that that terrain model. The topography has been loaded onto the spacecraft and will be used during entry descent and landing to guide the uh the vehicle to a safe landing spot. That's never been attempted before. It's called terrain relative navigation uh and it allowed uh the spacecraft to be targeted toward uh a more risky, a less flat and safe landing site uh than the previous Rovers uh had to land in uh so yeah, hopefully that'll get us to a very interesting place as soon as we as soon as we land. Great. Yeah, we definitely want to keep the rover safe. You bet. So MastCam-Z is the next generation of the MastCam instrument that's currently on the Curiosity Rover exploring Gale Crater. What is different about MastCam-Z and what's it's purpose? The The Z in MastCam-Z stands for zoom and that's what's new about these cameras. Uh both they're stereo cameras, multi spectral uh they have many filters to get different kinds of color data and they have a zoom capabilities so both of these cameras can zoom. Like a commercial zoom camera zoom lens and take pictures at you know a wide variety of resolution and fields of view so that we can really optimize the imaging acquisition once we get on the surface. Cool. Okay. Thank you for that explanation. So as you learn more and more about Mars over the years, what discoveries from these robotic missions have most surprised or intrigued you? All of these missions have found uh well maybe not going back to Mars Pathfinder, but uh all the rover missions since have found evidence for liquid water uh in the past on Mars and in fact some of the evidence points towards what look like habitable environments and in fact, uh spirit found evidence for ancient hot springs in Gusev Crater. You know, hot springs on Earth are places where life thrives So if there were hot springs on Mars, uh it's quite possible that life on Mars could have survived in those environments and that's really exciting. That is very exciting. Thank you for sharing that. so when perseverance lands you're going to be supporting two Rovers on Mars, that seems like a good problem to have but how are you going to manage that? It is a good problem to have indeed and we've been through this before. I'm happy to say both the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were successful and were overlapping at the same time. It reminds me back in 2004 after Opportunity landed I tried to cover both Rovers at the same time and quickly realized that that was impossible. They were 12 hours apart and I just wasn't getting any sleep. So yeah, it's a problem to try to do both at the same time. What I have found is that if you take a day off in between you can go back and forth between these Rovers without too much problem. Early in the mission, all of these missions, the Rovers we were supporting Rover operations on what we call Mars time so we were uh waking up or going to sleep whenever we needed to be in sync with the Rovers. The Mars Day is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day. So you'd be getting up 40 minutes later every day and that can be pretty tough when you're getting up at 3 AM or getting up at 3 PM uh to do your work but I love that part of the missions. I think it is really exciting to be so in tune with the Rovers and following their every move and I'm looking forward to it again, even with the lack of sleep. Gotcha, so we'll uh we'll see you running on Mars time around the office. That's right. Well hopefully we'll be in the office by then yeah. yeah. That would be great. well. Thank you so much. Ken I really enjoyed talking with you and um appreciate you sharing your insight and your experience on the rover missions with us. We're all very excited for Perseverance landing coming up really soon! Me too. Thanks Railyn. Yes this should be very exciting!