NASA Mars rover Perseverance launches on time Thursday to find evidence of life on Red Planet

NASA’s latest Mars rover blasted off to the Red Planet at 7:50 a.m. ET Thursday morning carrying sophisticated instruments powered by a variety of ruggedized chips with super-fast processing ability.*

The Perseverance rover is the centerpiece of NASA’s $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission. When it arrives on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021 after a seven-month journey, it is set to land on the 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater where the six-wheeled Perseverance robot will search the ancient river delta area for possible signs of ancient Martian life.

Perseverance is also expected to collect and cache several dozen rock samples that will be returned to Earth later, possibly in 2031. A 4-pound helicopter named Ingenuity will travel under the belly of Perseverance in a technology demonstration attempt to become the first rotorcraft ever to fly on a world beyond Earth.

Perseverance launched at 7:50 a.m. ET aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA offers a way to watch online.  

“We’ll make amazing, important discoveries,” said Thomas Zubuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a Monday news conference that was streamed online.

It will be the first time when a dedicated mission will study astrobiology and the search for life, said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “There could have been at one point in time, life,” he said. “We know that Mars had a very active atmosphere and hydrosphere and was protected from the radiation of space and was at one time habitable….Maybe there was life there. Let’s go find out whether there was life on Mars.”

Among the research instruments aboard Perseverance is PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry), an X-ray flouresence spectrometer and high-resolution imager to map the composition of Martian surface materials.  PIXL has the technology to permit more detailed detection and analysis of chemical elements than ever before, according to NASA.

Xilinx,the chipmaker that invented the Field Programmable Gate Array, provided its Virtex FPGA for PIXL to be used to help identify chemical elements at size of a grain of salt, according to Minal Sawant, space system architect for Xilinx. She spoke in an interview with FierceElectronics.

 “If you are looking for signs of ancient life, you want to look at a small scale and get detailed information about chemical elements present,” said Abigail Allwood, the principal investigator for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, in a statement.

PIXL hardware is about the size of a lunchbox and is mounted on a turret at the end of a robotic arm aboard Perseverance, according to NASA. The sensor head weighs nearly 10 pounds while the electronics weigh another 6 pounds.  It operates on 25 watts and returns about 16 megabits of data per experiment, which could total about 2 megabytes per day.  A laboratory tool to do the same job is normally about the size of a large beach cooler and weighs more than 500 pounds.

The instrument will focus an X-ray beam to a tiny spot on the target rock or soil and analyze the induced X-ray fluorescence. PIXL can detect more than two dozen elements in five seconds each, according to NASA.

Xilinx Virtex FPGAs will also be used in several other Perseverance instruments: Electra-lite (a UHF transceiver), Mastcam-Z (a mast-mounted camera system for taking 3D pictures and video at high speed to examine distant objects) and SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals).

Xilinx also provided the FPGA for a radar-based Terminal Descent Sensor (TDS) that uses Ka-band radar to provide range and velocity measurements for Perseverance’s Entry, Descent and Landing after heatshield separation in the Martian atmosphere.

 Xilinx paired a Virtex 5 FPGA paid with a RAD750 CPU for  vision processing tasks for the descent stage of the mission.  Together the chips provide an interface between a camera and an inertial measurement unit.  Sawant described the combined chips as providing an improvement of 18 times in the speed required to estimate a camera’s pose change when compared to the CPU on the Curiosity rover launched in 2011. It took  Curiosity 160 seconds, which has been pared down to 8.8 seconds for Perseverance.

The two chips optimize and rectify images, she said.  Curiosity didn’t have an FPGA as Perseverance does, which allows offloading of processing tasks and greater efficiency.

Xilinx Virtex 4 chips aboard Perseverance and its lander are radiation tolerant to protect against the ravages of space.  Ceramic packaging is used to ensure  the resilience.  Virtex 5 chips are radiation hardened through design, which partly means that single event unit hardness is built into the silicon.

“Ceramic packaging is very robust for space applications,” Sawant said.  “When a launch happens and the payload goes into space, vibration and shock and G forces affect it.  Commercial-grade packages would crack.”  Temperature variations and radiation will affect chips as well, so accelerated testing must be conducted to predict a chip’s lifetime of reliability.

Chips installed aboard satellites and space ships can be expensive.  The price per chip varies depending on the complexity of the chip and volume, said Kevin Anderson, an analyst at Omdia.  “A rad hard processor would cost thousands of dollars but an analog chip might be hundreds or high tens” of dollars, he said.  While Xilinx provides an array of FGPAs and other chips for a wide variety of industries, there are specialty companies that provide hardened chips for aerospace needs such as Skywater Technology and Vorago Technology.  Skywater and GlobalFoundries recently struck a deal with the U.S. government to supply semiconductors for defense uses.

Xilinx chips have been part of satellites and other space vehicles for decades and the company anticipates more work in the space category.  With the Europa mission planned for some time in the 2020s and Iridium satellites to be launched, among others, “there will hundreds of Vertix 5 FPGAs deployed,” Sawant predicted.  “Everybody wants to launch satellites.”

In May, Xilinx announced the industry’s first 20nm space-grade FPGA for satellite and space applications called the Kintex UltraScale FPGA.

Sawant said the Kintex FPGA will provide almost four times the compute power of the Virtex  5 FPGA allowing machine learning for edge inferencing in space.  “It brings machine learning to space that’s never been done before,” she said.  Satellites can use the Kintex chip with cameras to observe clouds in the atmosphere, then compress the images that are then stored on-board the satellite.

 A cloud detection machine learning algorithm can discard the unneeded images so they won’t take up space in transmission or clutter up post-processing work on earth.  With the ML on board, a satellite can more easily detect objects separate from clouds, Sawant said.

RELATED: Moon-seeking sensor helps earth sensors

* Story was updated Thursday to reflect successful on-time launch.