With eight successful Mars landings, NASA is upping the ante with its newest rover. The spacecraft Perseverance set for liftoff this week is NASA's biggest and brainiest Martian rover yet. It sports the latest landing tech, plus the most cameras and microphones ever assembled to capture the sights and sounds of Mars. Its super-sanitized sample return tubes for rocks that could hold evidence of past Martian life are the cleanest items ever bound for space. A helicopter is even tagging along for an otherworldly test flight.
- This summer's third and final mission to Mars after the United Arab Emirates' Hope orbiter and China's Quest for Heavenly Truth orbiter-rover combo begins with a launch scheduled for 30 July 2020 morning from Cape Canaveral.
- Like the other spacecraft, Perseverance should reach the red planet next February following a journey spanning seven months and more than 300 million miles (480 million kilometers).
- The six-wheeled, car-sized Perseverance is a copycat of NASA's Curiosity rover, prowling Mars since 2012, but with more upgrades and bulk.
- Its 7-foot (2-meter) robotic arm has a stronger grip and bigger drill for collecting rock samples, and it's packed with 23 cameras, most of them in color, plus two more on Ingenuity, the hitchhiking helicopter.
- The cameras will provide the first glimpse of a parachute billowing open at Mars, with two microphones letting Earthlings eavesdrop for the first time.
- Perseverance has more self-driving capability, too, so it can cover more ground than Curiosity. The enhancements make for a higher mission price tag: nearly $3 billion.
- Perseverance will drill into rocks most likely to hold signs of ancient life and stash the collection on the ground to await a future rover.
- Forty-three sample tubes are on board this rover, each one meticulously scrubbed and baked to remove Earthly microbes.
- NASA wants to avoid introducing organic molecules from Earth to the returning Martian samples. Each tube can hold one-half ounce (15 grams) of core samples, and the goal is to gather about a pound (0.5 kilogram) altogether for return to Earth.
- The 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter, Ingenuity, will travel to Mars clutching the rover's belly and, a few months after touchdown, attempt to fly solo.
- Once dropping onto the Martian surface, Ingenuity will start out like a baby bird, rising 10 feet (3 meters) into the planet's extremely thin atmosphere and flying forward up to 6 feet (2 meters).
- An instrument the size of a car battery will covert atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen, an essential ingredient for rocket propellant and breathing systems.