When we talk about the Internet of Things, most of us are referring to the smart devices we have in our homes that are supposed to make our lives easier. They’re the smart bulbs you can control with your smartphone or the networked appliances that let you preheat your oven remotely or let you know when the veggies you’ve left in your crisper have finally spoiled.
There is an endless number of applications for IoT devices here on Earth — and nearly as many once you leave the atmosphere. What sort of IoT sensors are currently on Mars on NASA’s Perseverance rover?
Before it touched down
Perseverance didn’t wait until it touched down on the Red Planet to start working. The shell that protected the rover during its descent was also chock-full of sensors called the Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrumentation 2 (MEDLI2).
These instruments are designed to monitor heat, pressure, and other information during the rover’s entry. This array had 28 sensors spread out across the shell, giving scientists their first-ever real-time measurements for things like the pressures and temperatures that a spacecraft might experience during atmospheric entry. This will be valuable information for the future when we start sending astronauts and crewed missions to the surface of the Red Planet.
Cloud computing in space
What do you think of when you hear the phrase “cloud computing?” Most people think of their Google Drive or other cloud-based applications that allow you to back up your digital storage without having to invest in large hard drives that have limited read/write capabilities.
While this is a useful tool, most of us don’t consider accessing our cloud drives from outer space. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is currently supporting Perseverance on Mars by providing a place for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to store and process all the data the rover sends back.
Analyzing the weather
The weather on the Red Planet is a lot different than it is here at home. And if we hope to build colonies and eventually live there full-time, we’ll need to do our best to understand it.
The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, also known as MEDA, is just the suite of sensors for the job. In addition to collecting data about weather conditions on the Martian surface, it will also help scientists study how that weather changes over time. This will prepare future astronauts and help them understand what they might be facing when they leave Earth behind.
A long way from 221B Baker Street
Okay, so this isn’t the Sherlock and Watson you might be familiar with, but Perseverance does sport a set of sensor systems named after the dynamic duo. The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescents for Organics and Chemicals, or SHERLOC, uses an ultraviolet laser to detect the presence of organic molecules and chemicals on the Martian surface. The light glows differently when it reflects off different substances.
Its partner is the Wide-Angle Topographic Sensors for Operations and eNgineering — or WATSON. This high-resolution camera takes microscopic images of the planet’s surface, especially anything that SHERLOC has targeted with its laser.
An AI-powered robotic arm
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to become more important as we continue to explore our solar system and the galaxy at large.
Right now on Mars, Perseverance has an AI-powered robotic arm and a lunchbox-sized instrument called the Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL. This handy little sensor can detect more than 20 different elements just by targeting a rock or other part of the Martian surface with a burst of x-rays. Its compact design makes it a lot easier for Perseverance to transport.
A bit of MOXIE on the Red Planet
One of the biggest challenges facing astronauts isn’t reaching Mars — it’s bringing enough oxygen to survive once we get there. Instead of hauling tanks and relying on air recycling and CO2 scrubbing, Perseverance is working to prove that we can make oxygen on the Martian surface.
The Mars OXygen In-situ resource utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, proved that we can separate oxygen from the CO2 molecules that make up the majority of the Red Planet’s atmosphere. This is just a small experiment, but if we can scale it up, it could provide oxygen for future Mars colonization missions so we won’t have to haul it with us on the long trip there.
Just the beginning of interstellar IoT
We’re just seeing the beginning of the interstellar internet of things, but it will likely prove to be one of the most important applications for this technology moving forward. There are a lot of places in the solar system that we can’t get to yet. The robots we send — and the sensors they carry — will help pave the way for astronauts and explorers for generations to come.
Photograph by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS