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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Deputy Project Scientist Katie Stack Morgan discusses science objectives of NASA’s first astrobiology-focused mission to the Red Planet.

Perseverance, with a name that embodies the NASA and American spirit of overcoming challenges, is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to Mars. Traveling nearly 300 million miles since launch in July 2020, the Perseverance rover completes its journey to Mars with landing on February 18. The rover will search for signs of ancient microbial life, characterize Mars’ geology and climate, collect rock and sediment samples for possible return to Earth, and pave the way for future human exploration. In the first segment of a two-part series on the Mars Perseverance Rover, Stack Morgan focuses on rover science. The Mars 2020 Project is managed for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • Science objectives of the mission
  • Sophisticated instruments that will conduct science and test new technology on Mars
  • Launching during a pandemic and other mission challenges


Related Resources

Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Mission

Mars Perseverance Rover

Science With Perseverance

Behind the Spacecraft: Seeking Signs of Life in Ancient Martian Rocks

APPEL Courses:

Team Leadership (APPEL-vTL)

Team Membership (APPEL-vTM)

The Best Teams: Introverts, Extraverts and Ambiverts (APPEL-vTBT)


Katie Stack Morgan Credit: NASA

Katie Stack Morgan
Credit: NASA

Katie Stack Morgan is a Research Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Deputy Project Scientist of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover, and a Participating Scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover mission. For her work on the Curiosity rover, Stack Morgan was named to the 2013 Forbes’ list of 30 under 30 and has earned several NASA Group Achievement Awards and a NASA Software of the Year award. Her research focuses on the Martian sedimentary rock record, using orbiter and rover image data to understand the evolution of ancient surface processes on Mars. She graduated with a bachelor’s in geology and astronomy from Williams College and earned her master’s and doctorate in geology from Caltech.


Katie Stack Morgan: We think we have a really good shot of finding signs of ancient life in an ancient lake on Mars.

As the name implies, we are persevering, and we believe that we’ll be ready to operate Perseverance when it lands in February.

It’s really exciting to be a part of a robotic mission that is in service to these bigger-picture human exploration goals that NASA has.

The science that we do with this rover mission will really provide the science for future generations.

Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome back to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.

I’m Deana Nunley.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover is nearing the end of its seven-month journey to the Red Planet and is scheduled to land February 18. We’re presenting a two-part series on Perseverance, and today’s episode focuses on rover science. Our guest is Katie Stack Morgan, the Deputy Project Scientist of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover.

Katie, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast.

Stack Morgan: Thank you for having me.

Host: What are the main science objectives of this mission?

Stack Morgan: So, the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover mission is the first mission that is part of a potential Mars sample return campaign to bring samples from Mars back to Earth. And because the Perseverance Rover mission is part of Mars sample return, we are specifically focused on developing and putting together a collection of samples that can answer some of the most fundamental questions we have about life in the universe and in the solar system as well as the evolution of planets and how they change over time, in particular, going from planets that were once habitable to planets that may or may not be habitable today. And in service to those big-picture objectives, the mission has four very specific objectives.

The first of these is to characterize the geology of the landing site, and we are headed to a place called Jezero Crater with the Perseverance Rover mission, and it’s the site of an ancient delta and an ancient lake on Mars. And so the Perseverance Rover will use its instrument payload to learn more about the history of this ancient lake and delta system, and understanding the processes that occurred at this ancient lake site, and understanding how the rocks were affected over time.

We also are specifically seeking signs of ancient life on Mars, and that’s our second objective. And we have a science instrument payload that is particularly well-suited to searching for possible bio signatures, or signs that life might once have existed. And those two objectives, understanding the geology, and also searching for signs of ancient life are in service to our third objective, which is putting together this returnable cache of samples, a scientifically compelling cache of samples that can answer these fundamental questions we have about the solar system, and whether life existed on Mars at one point.

And finally, we have a fourth objective, which many rovers have shared in the past, which is preparing for future human exploration of Mars. And we have some exciting science and technology demonstrations that are in service to this goal of preparing for future human exploration.

Host: When you think about the science possibilities that are ahead with this mission, what gets you most excited?

Stack Morgan: Yeah. That’s a great question, and it is absolutely the potential for the Perseverance Rover to discover signs of ancient life on Mars. I think the science instrument payload that we have aboard the Perseverance Rover is uniquely well suited, and perhaps best suited compared to any previous rover we’ve sent to Mars to really seek those signs of ancient life. And so, I’m incredibly excited to get the data back from the instruments we have on this rover that I think can really answer that question for us. And even if we don’t find those signs of ancient life with the rover on the surface, I’m pretty confident that we have selected a landing site where, when we get those samples back to Earth, we’ll have a chance to answer that question then.

And so, I’m incredibly excited about both the in-situ science that we’ll do, hopefully answering that question of ‘Was life ever present on Mars?’ and also thinking ahead to the fact that the samples that we collect with the Perseverance Rover and the science that we do with this rover mission will really provide the science for future generations. I think a lot about the impact of the Apollo samples on science. And people are still learning new things about the Moon today and the solar system today from those samples. And we’re decades out from when those samples came back to Earth. And so it’s so exciting for me to think about the impact that this mission and my participation on this mission can have on future generations of scientists. And that’s just so exciting for me, and a real inspiration for me to do what I do every day.

Host: You mentioned that the rover will be landing at Jezero Crater. Why was that site selected? And what makes it special?

Stack Morgan: Yeah. So, Jezero Crater is the landing site of the Perseverance Rover. And this selection of this site was the culmination of more than five years of community workshop and discussion to get to this single landing site. And you can imagine how hard it is for the science community, that loves all of Mars, to settle on a single place to send a rover mission. And there were many appealing candidates for the landing site for Mars 2020. But ultimately, the science community and NASA Headquarters settled on Jezero Crater because it is truly unique. It is a unique site on Mars. It has a fantastically preserved delta, or a fan-shaped feature, that’s deposited in an open body of water. And folks may be familiar with deltas here on Earth, like the Mississippi Delta, or the Amazon River Delta.

And we have a delta here in Jezero Crater. And but what’s particularly special about Jezero Crater is that we know for certain that this crater was filled with water. And there are a number of craters on Mars where we think ancient lakes might have existed. But at Jezero Crater, it is slam dunk. We have a river valley going into the crater and a river valley going out of the crater. So, we know for sure that river filled up to the point where it basically overflowed, and that’s how the outlet river valley formed. And so, we know that there was standing water in this crater for geologically significant amounts of time, which is exactly the kind of setting that we think life could really have arisen on Mars. Lakes and deltas are a great place for life to exist on Earth. And delta deposits are a great place for life to be preserved.

If you think about the calm waters of a lake, and organic matter just falling out of the water column and depositing on the bed of that lake, that’s exactly what we think might’ve happened in Jezero Crater. And so, we think we have a really good shot of finding signs of ancient life in an ancient lake on Mars. And what’s exciting too about Jezero Crater are the minerals that we see in Jezero. There are minerals called carbonate minerals, which are formed by carbon and oxygen and water coming together. And it’s always been a question about why we don’t see more carbonates on Mars because carbonates form when there’s a lot of CO2 around. But we’re missing carbonates in a lot of places on Mars. And so Jezero is one of those places where we have carbonate minerals, and we have them along the shallow margins of the lake. And that’s exactly where you might expect carbonates to form, particularly if you had ancient microbial mats forming on the margins of those shallow lakes, like we see in some lakes here on Earth.

And so, the deposits in Jezero Crater really are a juicy astrobiology target for the mission. And we’re very excited to explore those rocks in hopes of finding those signs of ancient life. But also, what makes this area additionally special on top of those aspects of the lake and the delta system, is that Jezero Crater is in one of the oldest regions of Mars. It’s just on the inner edge of the Isidis Impact Basin, which is one of these giant ancient impact basins on Mars. It’s about 3.9 billion years old.

And the ancient crust around that impact basin preserves crust of Mars that’s even older than that impact basin. And so, with the Perseverance Rover, we have the chance to explore a surface environment in this lake and delta system that we think was really conducive to the existence and preservation of signs of ancient life, as well as exploring way back in Martian history to four billion years ago to understand what processes were affecting the planet, even going as far back as four billion years. So, in just a single rover traverse, Perseverance can explore four billion years of Martian history and solar system history, and that’s an incredible opportunity. And that’s why we selected Jezero as the best place to send the Perseverance Rover.

Host: What makes the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover humanity’s most sophisticated rover?

Stack Morgan: Yes. Just about every aspect of this rover is sophisticated. A lot of the heritage of this mission comes from the MSL Curiosity Rover, so Curiosity gave us a great starting point and really allowed us on the Mars 2020 mission to focus on the enhancements and the new technology and new science that we wanted to do with this rover to accomplish our mission objectives.

And so, one of the first things that makes this rover the most sophisticated one we’ve ever sent is its landing technology. We have a brand-new landing capability called Terrain Relative Navigation, where we can divert away from pre-identified landing hazards in our landing area. And a rover’s never been able to do that before, and that has allowed us to go to the landing site that we’re going to. And if we had had technology from previous missions, we wouldn’t have been able to go to this landing site, and so I think that is one incredible advance we have. And over time, the landing ellipsis for Mars missions have shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. And so now we have that capability as we’re descending through the atmosphere to divert away from places we don’t want the rover to land, and so that’s a big advance that we have.

I think another aspect that makes the Perseverance Rover so incredibly special is the sampling and caching system. And so we often hear the engineers say that this is the most complex robotic system ever developed and sent beyond Earth. And so I think this system, it’s incredibly complex, and it involves a multi-step process to get a drill sample from the surface, or a soil sample into an ultra-clean tube, and then to document that sample in a number of different stations within the body of the rover. And most rovers only have one arm, or are lucky if they have an arm. We have two arms.

We have of course the arm on the outside of the rover, and then we have a small arm inside of the rover to manipulate that sample in the sample tube through the different stations within the body of the rover. And so we have a whole sample collection system within the rover, and that’s just truly incredible that we can do all of those steps within Perseverance. And so that’s I think an aspect that makes this rover mission so incredibly special. And it’ll be a real feat of technological accomplishment to successfully cache our first sample in, and I’m really looking forward to that event for the mission.

And of course, we have technology demonstrations that take this mission to the next level. We have the MOXIE instrument that is kind of a prototype for the type of system you might want if humans were to go to Mars, producing oxygen from the CO2 in the Martian atmosphere. And we know about systems like that because we see them in science fiction movies like ‘The Martian.’ And here we are, we’re actually going to bring a system like that to Mars and test it out for the first time in preparation for human exploration. And that’s just a really great thing to think about.

And of course, we have the helicopter that’s riding along with Perseverance. The Ingenuity helicopter will be our first roto-craft exploration on another planet. And so we have all the bells and whistles on this rover. And we have high hopes for what we’ll accomplish on both the science and the engineering perspectives.

Host: Could you explain additional instruments onboard Perseverance that will conduct science and test new technology on Mars?

Stack Morgan: Yeah. So, the science instruments that we have on Perseverance are a mix of instruments that are updates from those that were on the MSL Curiosity Rover, as well as some brand-new instruments that have never flown to Mars on previous rovers. And so some of our heritage instruments are in particular on the mast of the rover. We have Mastcam-Z, which is very similar to Mastcam that flew on Curiosity, but with a zoom capability, which is what the Z stands for. And we will use Mastcam-Z to do contextual imaging, to understand the geology of the rocks that we see, and as well as using the camera for engineering purposes as well, in helping us plan our drives. And so Mastcam-Z are truly the eyes of the rover, and our eyes on Mars.

And we have the SuperCam instrument, which is Heritage, built on the ChemCam instruments of Curiosity. And it truly is super. The ChemCam instrument on the Curiosity Rover used a capability called LIBS, where you basically fire a laser at the surface and create a plasma. And then you analyze that plasma with the spectrometers within the rover. And the SuperCam instrument on 2020 does LIBS as well as three or four other types of analyses, so really earning that ‘super’ in SuperCam. And we’ll use a number of different analytical techniques to examine the mineralogy of the surface, so what minerals are present, the chemical composition, and we can also detect organic matter if it’s present in high enough quantities. And so those are instruments that build on heritage from Curiosity.

And then our brand-new instruments include instruments like the RIMFAX instrument, so that’s using ground penetrating radar to see underneath the rover into the surface of Mars. And that’s incredibly exciting to see things that we normally wouldn’t see, because typically, we’re restricted to what we see at the surface with the rover. And now we can see underground. And we’ll use the RIMFAX data to understand the geologic context of the landing site and understand what the rocks are doing underground. And the RIMFAX capability, ground-penetrating radar, is another capability and technology that could be useful in the future when searching for in-situ resources, perhaps with a future human mission. So even though it’s a science instrument for us to do geology with, it has future applicability as well.

But I think the instruments that to me are most exciting on Perseverance are the brand-new instruments on the arm of the rover. We have the Pixel and the Sherlock instruments. And these are the two instruments that really, I think, advance our ability to detect possible bio signatures on the surface of Mars. The Pixel instrument, both of the instruments, Pixel and Sherlock, do high-resolution spatial mapping of, in Pixel’s case, chemical elements. And then in the case of Sherlock, looking for organics and mapping organics. And riding along with Sherlock is the Watson camera, which is heritage on the MAHLI camera that flew on MSL. And that provides the highly detailed surface texture. So what we have with this suite of instruments on the arm are really high resolution spatial mapping of chemical composition, mineralogy, organics and texture. And it’s those things combined together that really allow you to make a case for a possible bio signature.

And those are exactly the same kind of tools and observations that we use on Earth to find bio signatures, and now we can do that on Mars. And that is the thing that I think I’m most excited about, is to use these new instruments to seek those signs of ancient life and to test out our payload on these Martian rocks that we’re going to, that we think have a really high chance of having bio signatures.

Host: And here we are, only a few weeks away from Perseverance landing on Mars. Once the rover lands, what happens next? And what’s the timeline?

Stack Morgan: Yeah. So first, we will all breathe a deep sigh of relief, and then we’ll cheer like mad. But once that happens, the work really starts for us on the science team. And this is what we’ve been planning for, and this is what we’ve been working towards for these past few years. And so, once the rover lands, the first thing that the rover does and that we do as scientists and engineers in the mission, is we check out the rover. So, we have to check out the different instruments on the rover, make sure that they survived the cruise, and the entry, descent and landing process as expected. And so we do instrument checks. And we start to check out some of the engineering capabilities of the rover as well.

And some of that involves removing things like dust covers and turning instruments on and off, and doing conditioning of some of the lasers that we have on the rover. And so that all takes a couple of weeks, and then we do a flight software update. So right now, the rover has software on it to prepare, to have it do cruise and then landing. But once we get on the surface, we upload a new version of software to prepare it for the surface mission. And so that is a big early milestone for the rover. And then once we have the new software upload, then we will test our wheels out and do our first drive. And then at that point, most rovers are ready to kind of move on their way and do their, carry out the science mission.

But for Perseverance, we will at that point, push pause on the science mission so that we can deploy the Ingenuity helicopter. And so, the helicopter can have its 30-sol, or -day, mission on the surface of Mars. And so we’ll carry out the helicopter mission, and once that’s done, we really are then truly ready to carry out the Perseverance science mission. So, at that point, we will—and this could be anywhere between probably about 60 and 90 days into the mission, we’ll be ready to drive to our first science way point, or location, to really start the science mission.

Host: It’s going to be fun for all of us to follow along. Let’s talk about challenging aspects of this mission. One that comes to mind is launching during a pandemic. Could you reflect on your experiences with Perseverance and some of the challenges?

Stack Morgan: Yes. And the pandemic with coronavirus was not something that any of us could have anticipated. And it was a real moment of pause for us on the team, wondering, ‘Is the mission going to make it? because we all went remote. And many of us stopped, most of us stopped coming into lab at JPL around the middle of March. And we were fortunate in some ways in that much of the rover hardware was already built and tested and ready to head to Cape Canaveral. And so, we were fortunate in some aspects because it could have been, had coronavirus hit a couple of months earlier, we would’ve been in a much more precarious position I think relative to making our launch window. But fortunately, there were just a handful of tasks that still needed to be completed and tests that needed to be run. In particular, the sampling system had some additional things that needed to happen before it was ready for launch. So we had a very small crew of people who were still coming to work and doing work during those early months leading up to launch.

And fortunately, their work all completed on time and there were no major issues. And for that, we were very fortunate. But at that point, with all of us working remotely, we had to continue carrying on our planning for the surface mission, and carrying out the testing and verification that needs to happen to be ready to operate the rover on the surface. And that’s not something that any mission has really done in a remote way before. And so I think we all realized how easy it is to take for granted those hallway conversations that we all have when you’re on lab and on premises, and together with the scientists and engineers, and how easy communication is then. And we’ve just had to work through the challenges of doing all of our communication, planning, designing and development for surface operations, largely remotely these past eight to 10 months. And so, we are, as the name implies, we are persevering, and we believe that we’ll be ready to operate Perseverance when it lands in February. But it’s definitely been a different way of approaching a rover mission. And fortunately, I think we see our fellow missions, Insight and Curiosity. They have successfully been able to carry out their service operations fully remotely. And of course, it’s a little different operating a rover in the early days of the mission, as opposed to eight years in, like Curiosity is. And there’s a lot you learn in those early days, but we’re confident that we can carry out this mission, and we’ll be able to do it. And we’ll find a way to do. And so I think this has just been another thing. You know? Another thing you work through, and particularly for folks at JPL, JPLers are used to working through challenges and problems, and so this is just another one to work through.

But first and foremost, I think that we remind ourselves that as much as we want the mission to succeed and we want to be there to help it succeed, that health and safety of our people on the team comes first. And so we’re constantly evolving and being responsive to the conditions that the pandemic is throwing at us. But the first and foremost is the health and safety of our people. And so it’s been a big challenge, but we’ll be ready when we land in February.

Host: Aside from the pandemic, what were some of the other challenges that the team faced?

Stack Morgan: Yes. Challenges pop up every day, big and small, when you are building and designing a rover mission. And I think there are a couple of challenges that we’ve encountered that are unique to the science team. And one of the things that is unique about this mission is the sample return aspect. We are the first. Perseverance is the first step of a Mars sample return campaign, and so we are not only thinking about the science that we are doing on the surface with this rover, but we’re also thinking about, ‘Well, what science could be done with these samples decades from now?’ And that’s a very new element for a rover mission to think about, and it’s a new set of expertise that’s needed to help a rover mission accomplish that kind of goal.

And so, it’s been a really interesting experience to be on a rover team with such diverse interests and objectives. And so we have folks on our team for whom this is their very first rover mission. And we have folks on our team who have been on five Mars missions before. And so it’s a real mix of experience levels that we have on the team. And we have folks from all kinds of scientific disciplines coming to the table.

Of course, each instrument team has its own set of expertise, and so what we have to do in project science, especially as the leaders of this team, is bring everyone together because we have a science team of over 450 scientists at this point. And we have to get them all together with all their diverse interests to recognize and to be on board with the single-focused goals of the mission, and then to carry them out.

And so that’s been, I think, one of the challenges that I’ve experienced as part of the leadership team, is just getting the team to work together and getting them focused and ready and prepared to work together like the well-oiled machine we hope to be when we are operating on the surface. And so we’re confident at this point that Perseverance will carry out its job. And we on the science team, we have our job to do, and so we are very focused on getting our team prepared and getting everybody on the same page because you can imagine the conversations we have, very robust, scientific discussion, when you have 450 scientists, each coming with their own opinions. And so it’s a challenge, but it’s also fun to get everybody together and to hear the different perspectives, and try to reach a consensus for how we want to operate the mission, while keeping in mind what the real objectives are, and what the most important things are that we need to do on the surface.

And doing that prioritization is hard, but it’s also at the end of the day, when you have prioritized, and everybody has bought in, it’s a real feeling of success that you have. And you feel really good about having a team that’s on the same page. And so we have ambitious goals with the Mars 2020 mission. And another extra element that we have as part of Mars sample return is knowing that we have a rendezvous with the next leg of Mars sample return that could come as early as six to seven years down the line. And so the minute we land on the surface, the clock starts ticking for us. And that’s I think an added pressure that previous rover missions haven’t had to think about because their mission is their mission, and it’s self-contained, and they carry out their mission on the surface and don’t think about what a future mission might have to play in terms of how this current mission operates. But that’s an element that Mars 2020 has to think about. We have to think about the follow-on missions, which are currently in development at the moment and in design.

And so, there is a lot of coordination that needs to happen between our mission on Mars 2020, and then the follow-on missions. And that’s an international effort, so there are a lot of moving pieces to the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover mission, science and engineering wise, and with the Mars sample return campaign. And so we have to navigate all of those challenges every day as these different pieces start to come together. So, it’s the kind of job that always keeps us on our toes. And there is a new challenge every day that comes up, and that’s part of what makes this particular job so exciting for me, is to tackle those challenges.

Host: Katie, as one of a handful of earlier career team members in a leadership role on this mission, what are your observations of what it takes for a young professional to climb the mission ladder, so to speak, and contribute significantly to mission success?

Stack Morgan: Yeah. That’s a great question. And I’ll have to say that no one person’s experiences on a mission is exactly the same. And that’s great because it’s very much a choose-your-own-adventure, I think, kind of experience. And that’s certainly been the experience that I’ve had. I’ve felt, it’s interesting, I started off on the Curiosity Rover mission as a grad student. And in many ways, I actually ended up I think benefiting from the three-year delay that the Curiosity Rover mission had. It was originally scheduled to launch in 2008, 2009, I believe. And it ended up launching in 2011. And so I had just started graduate school when we heard about the delay. And so when Curiosity did finally land on the surface of Mars in 2012, I was a senior grad student, already developing my own sense of independence.

And my graduate advisor, who was the project scientist, John Grotzinger, at the time, he really let me run with my own passions, and he let me loose on the Curiosity Rover team. And so I was free to jump into all levels of planning on the Curiosity Rover mission. And I got to experience what it was like to be in what we called the tactical planning, so that’s the everyday kind of planning, and I also got a chance to step back and experience what it’s like to do strategic planning for a mission. So, thinking about, ‘Well, what is the mission going to do in the next weeks or months even?’

And so, on the Curiosity Mission, I really got a chance to cut my teeth on being on a rover mission and see those different levels. And coming to JPL, I think, was a really big part of my own career development because I got to see behind the curtain. As a member of the science team, we’re often so focused on thinking about the science of the mission and what the science data is telling us about the surface of Mars and the history of Mars. But as research scientists in the setting at JPL, I really got to see that interface between science and engineering, and how the considerations of those two groups of folks really have to play together and coordinate together. And so I really felt like I got that peek behind the curtain there as a JPLer, to see that. And I think that really helped me understand more about what it takes to develop and operate a Mars rover mission.

And so, having had a lot of that great experience from my first mission experience on MSL, I was I think well poised and positioned to move into a leadership role on Mars 2020, having had a lot of that experience in all these different levels on MSL. But of course, every mission is different, and we joke on Mars 2020 that a lot of people come on from MSL and say, ‘Well, on MSL, we used to do it this way.’ And so there’s a little bit of that too. And you have to be ready to adapt to a new mission, a new objective, a new group of people, that we have many folks, many of us have come over from MSL onto Mars 2020. But then I think, I mean, being on Mars 2020 in this leadership role, I’ve learned so much about dynamics, social dynamics, and learning more about engineering and how to communicate, and the importance of communication. And I think that’s probably one of the keys here, is communication because every interaction we have, it’s about communication, and how you communicate, and what you communicate.

And there are times when we’re talking to our science colleagues, and you have to communicate in one way. And then other times, when we’re talking to the engineers, and we have to be very explicit about what we’re saying and what we’re asking for. And then of course, we have our conversations with folks at the NASA Headquarters level, and so there’s a certain style of communication that is appropriate for those interactions. And so it’s really learning how to be I think a versatile communicator, is one of the key aspects to making an impact on these rover missions.

Host: Great observations. Thanks for sharing those with us. How important is the role of the Perseverance mission in future human missions to Mars?

Stack Morgan: Yes, that’s a great question and one that is ever present in our minds as we think about the future of human space exploration. And it is sometimes easy to get, especially for me as a scientist, I get wrapped up into the science objectives of a mission to Mars, but also reminded that each mission that we send to Mars is contributing in a step towards human exploration goals. And we’ve seen now since Pathfinder onwards, we are delivering larger and larger payloads to the surface of Mars, and that’s something that we need to know how to do and be able to do to send humans, and so our landing technologies have evolved. And even Perseverance’s Terrain Relative Navigation capability of diverting away from hazards, that’s something that will be relevant if and when we were to send humans to Mars. And I think some of these capabilities that we have on the rover itself, the MOXIE instrument, contributing to producing the kind of resources that humans would need to both exist on Mars and also get back to Earth.

The MOXIE instrument can produce oxygen that would be used to develop rocket fuel since rocket fuel is heavy and expensive to bring with you. So if you want your astronauts to come back, you have to be able to produce some of those resources in situ on Mars, and so the MOXIE instrument on Perseverance really helps take that next step. Thinking about, ‘What is it that humans would need to produce there on the surface?’ And Perseverance also has a weather station called the meta instrument, and this is heritage on the REMS instrument on Curiosity. But this instrument is intended to tell us about the modern-day environmental conditions on Mars, and that’s exactly what astronauts would need to know if they were living and working on the surface. They would need to know the weather, just like we know it here on Earth, so that they can operate safely and carry out their activities on the surface of Mars.

And so, there are elements of Perseverance and its mission that really contribute to future human exploration and prepare us for that challenge as well. And as we send more and more complex and sophisticated rovers, while they are robotic explorers, it prepares us both in the way we think about operating the rover as well as the technology for preparing, for sending the kind of complex systems, of which humans are the most complex, sending to another planet and knowing how to manage and operate complex systems on another planet. And so Perseverance takes that next step as well in helping us understand a very complex system and how to operate that, and preparing the team and building that expertise on the Earth side for how to operate complex missions with a lot of different moving parts and a lot of different things to monitor. And that’s exactly the kind of experience that we’re going to need to send human missions to Mars. So, it’s really exciting to be a part of a robotic mission that is in service to these bigger-picture human exploration goals that NASA has, and I’m excited for the potential there.

Host: Many thanks to Katie for being our guest. You’ll find her bio along with a transcript of today’s episode and links to topics discussed on the show at

Katie spoke briefly about the Ingenuity helicopter. And we’ll get to have an in-depth conversation about the helicopter in our next episode when Chief Engineer Bob Balaram joins us for the second segment of this two-part series on the Mars Perseverance Rover.

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