A group of year 11 English students were recently asked to select a story from a menu of current news articles, practising their exploration of non-fiction texts.
Student Isaac selected a BBC News article on the Perseverance Mars rover and ended up writing a piece that was even more informative and interesting than the article itself, which is not surprising given that he helped to train Perseverance’s self-driving software!
Isaac is so passionate and knowledgeable about this subject, and his writing style is excellent, so we have shared his take on the BBC News article below.
I’ve been following the Mars 2020 mission for years now, so this means quite a lot to me. I remember vaguely when the concept of Ingenuity came about and for it to be on Mars now is spectacular.
I’ve helped train Perseverance’s self-driving software, so I’ve even contributed to the mission myself. I watched it launch on an Atlas V 541 live. I listened to mission control audio live during the landing and I was watching yesterday’s press conference to release the video.
Bearing all that in mind, the problems I’m picking out here are probably petty. Nonetheless, my first thought was it doesn’t manage to get across just how significant this landing was. You know, this is ridiculously hard. It takes a signal 28 minutes to go from Mars, to Earth and back, so the landing has to be automated absolutely perfectly.
Not only that though, the thing has to fly itself through Mars’s atmosphere (which is wildly different to that on Earth) whilst automatically correcting for any programming errors by itself millions of kilometres away. That’s a little bit tricky. It’s really no wonder the success rate for landing on Mars is around 50%; and just remember that those other 50% that failed were equally confident that their probe would land successfully. Space is hard.
I also would have liked it if it had mentioned how accurate the landing was. It mentions a 1.2km^2 area, but those numbers are meaningless to someone without context.
Picture this. First of all, you’ve had to launch a rocket so accurately that it can travel around 98 million km to hit something 7,000 km wide (basically a spec of dust); then manage to travel from 15 times the speed of sound; negotiating a completely alien atmosphere; experiencing gravitational forces 20 times stronger than those on Earth; make it through a wall of plasma and then come to a perfect stop in a spot 1.2 km wide? Come on, credit where it’s due. Most early landers had targets around 6,000 times bigger than this. This is accuracy we’ve never seen before. It would have been nice if that got a mention.
A little note they could have added is why it took so long (five days) to get video back. (The rover is basically on dial-up connection and it’s a 30gb video). It’s also not true that NASA released the video, it was JPL who released it. Though NASA and JPL are constantly confused and most people treat them as the same body even though most people have never heard of JPL. To be honest, most of the time an article in the mainstream media says NASA has done something, they haven’t, JPL have (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). A nice addition would have also been that we’ve never sent a microphone to another planet.
I’ve had an interest in space and space exploration as long as I can remember, so when – a few years ago – this mission first came into light, I instantly started following it (as I do with all current and future missions).
I also do citizen science projects which anyone can sign up for, so when the opportunity came up to help train the Perseverance self-driving algorithm, I took it. We use photos taken by the Curiosity rover and teach the algorithm to classify sand, dirt, rocks and bedrock.