Early this morning, NASA launched its newest Mars rover, Perseverance. An opportunity like this only comes around every 26 months when Earth and Mars align, so the mission team worked through tight health regulations to ensure the rover launched this year.
NASA first announced the Mars 2020 rover in 2012, just months after Curiosity landed on the Red Planet. And after eight years of careful planning, invention and checking off a high-tech packing list, NASA’s fifth Mars rover was ready for launch. At 7:50 a.m. from Cape Canaveral, the car-sized rover was spirited away on an Atlas V rocket.
In almost seven months, Perseverance will begin its descent to Mars’ surface. Here’s its itinerary when it arrives.
A Quest for Signs of Ancient life
On February 18, 2021, Perseverance will begin its seven-minute descent, taking photos along the way. Once it’s about 25 feet from the surface, a rocket-powered sky crane will lower the rover on a cable until its six wheels meet the ground of Jezero Crater. Research from past rovers already suggests that Mars’ ancient landscape was habitable; Perseverance will search for signs that living things once called it home.
The crater’s circular shape, intersected with the signs erosion from a long-dry river, suggest that it was once a lake, NASA planetary scientist Caleb Fassett tells the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang. The place where the river met the lake over three billion years ago may be the best chance to find signs of ancient life on Mars, and Perseverance is bringing the tools to find out.
The rover is equipped with a microscope and camera to check rocks for the patterns that microbial life would have left behind. Perseverance is also carrying an ultraviolet laser and light sensors named SHERLOC that will analyze samples for hints of organic molecules and minerals. To calibrate its equipment, the rover is bringing along a Martian meteorite that landed in Oman, and was discovered in 1999, Mindy Weisberger reports for Live Science.
Perseverance will also save some work for later—the rover is carrying 43 sample collection tubes, where it will gather robotic handfuls of Martian soil that NASA hopes to send back to Earth on a future mission.
“To actually have really carefully selected samples back at Earth, even though they’re small—it’s going to really change the way we do business,” Georgetown University planetary scientist Sarah Stewart Johnson, tells Nadia Drake at National Geographic. “And once we have those samples, we’ll have them forever,” so they can be analyzed with tools that might not exist yet.
An interplanetary packing list
Mars doesn’t offer any amenities to its Earthly visitors, so Perseverance has to pack anything it might need. It’s bringing 23 cameras, more than any other interplanetary mission, and seven scientific instruments to study the planet and send data back to Earth. And the rover isn’t travelling alone—Perseverance is carrying a four-pound helicopter attached to its belly.
When it drops the copter in a flat spot, it will drive away and never meet up again, Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung tells Kenneth Chang at the New York Times.
The helicopter is an independent experiment named Ingenuity, and it might just become the first helicopter to fly on another planet. It needs to meet several milestones, first: surviving the launch, the months-long journey, and deployment from Perseverance. Then it needs to stay warm through a cold Martian night, and recharge with its solar panel. Then, it will be ready to attempt its first flight on Mars.
The Martian environment presents challenges. The planet’s atmosphere is only about one percent as dense as Earths, and atmospheric density plays a big role in generating lift. To make up for it, Ingenuity is as light as possible, and its four-foot-long rotor blades will spin at 2,800 revolutions per minute, Irene Klotz writes for Scientific American. Ingenuity’s mission is to show whether powered flight is possible on Mars, so each test flight will be just 90 seconds long.
Aung tells the Times that Ingenuity’s technology could be scaled up to a 30 pound aircraft instead of just four. The bigger helicopter could carry scientific instruments and cameras, but because the atmosphere is so thin, it won’t be able to carry astronauts.
Groundwork for the future
Just like Perseverance is building on past rovers’ research, future missions will rely on Perseverance’s hard work. A couple of the rover’s experiments were planned with an eye on crewed missions to Mars.
One such experiment is MOXIE. About the size of a car battery, MOXIE is a tool for splitting carbon dioxide molecules in Mars’ atmosphere into carbon monoxide and, most importantly, oxygen, Max Levy reports for Smithsonian magazine. If it works, future Mars-bound astronauts could use a larger version of MOXIE to generate the oxygen they need to refuel for the trip back to Earth.
“NASA definitely doesn’t want to just leave people on Mars,” says Asad Aboobaker, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to Smithsonian.
NASA also sent a set of material swatches to Mars—not to coordinate the rover’s upholstery, but to help spacesuit designers decide which material to use on the outside of future astronauts’ spacesuits. The five swatches—Nomex, Gore-tex, Kevlar, Vectran and Teflon—are nestled next to a piece of helmet visor and the Martian meteorite that SHERLOC will use to calibrate its sensors.
Over the course of Perseverance’s mission, the rover will use SHERLOC to measure how the materials degrade when exposed to the Martian environment, particularly the radiation from the Sun and cosmic rays and from Mars dust.
A successful launch
With all this on board, Perseverance had a successful launch and will hurtle through space until it reaches its destination. If you missed the launch—or just want to launch it again—it’s available on NASA’s YouTube channel. The rover also has a Twitter account for updates.