NASA launched its latest Mars rover, dubbed Perseverance, on 30 July 2020, the first step in the space agency’s newest effort to hunt for signs of ancient microbial life and collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth. The rover blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida atop an Atlas V rocket, beginning its 6 ½ month trip to the red planet. Destined to land in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, this is the latest effort by the U.S. space agency to learn more about the Martian atmosphere and surface.
- Perseverance is also carrying a small helicopter named Ingenuity, which if successful will be “the first aircraft to fly in a controlled way on another planet.
- The most dramatic goal of the mission will be the rover’s attempt to demonstrate a technology that converts carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen.
- In the future, oxygen generated this way could be used by astronauts as rocket propellant and for breathing, NASA said. The ability to do so will be a critical consideration in planning human landings and bases on Mars.
- The 2,260-pound, 10-feet long rover is the biggest and heaviest robotic Mars rover NASA has ever built (its name came from a Virginia seventh-grader). It’s the fourth sent to Mars by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
- Previous rovers were named Curiosity, Opportunity and Sojourner. Opportunity’s mission was declared complete in February 2019 after 15 years of work when NASA lost contact with the vehicle. Curiosity continues to explore the planet, and Sojourner finished its mission in 1997.
- The agency also operates the InSight Mars Lander platform, which is exploring below the planet’s surface.
Mission profile and objectives
- NASA is the only space agency to have landed a craft successfully on Mars, but landing an expensive, speeding spacecraft on the planet will still be a monumental task. The entry, descent and landing system (EDLS) will be similar to the Curiosity rover’s famous ‘seven minutes of terror‘, the time it took for the spacecraft to land on Mars' surface after entering the planet’s atmosphere.
- The rover will slow down using reverse thrusters, descend using a parachute, and bounce on the rocky surface cocooned in protective balloon-bags. The spacecraft will also steer itself during landing towards a flat, safe surface.
- Perseverance weighs 1,025 kg — with six durable aluminium wheels and a five-jointed robotic arm. The craft runs on solar power but also has a backup generator running on plutonium to power itself through Mars’ notorious sand storms that can cover the entire planet and block out the sun for days.
- It has seven scientific payloads, 19 cameras, and two microphones, which will record sounds from Mars for the first time ever.
- The payloads include spectrometers to study the surface composition, radar imagers to penetrate the ground and detect underground water, sensors to record environmental conditions, and an oxygen generating experimental payload.
- Two of these payloads — the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument, which can detect organic matter and the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) which measures the composition of rocks and soil — will enable mapping of organic matter, chemical composition and texture at a greater level of detail than any Mars mission before, and will play an important role in looking for biosignatures.
- The lander also has a Terrain-Relative Navigation system on board, that will help the rover move, and this will be the trial version of the navigation system expected to help future robotic and crewed exploration of Mars.
- The rover will also investigate surface geology, geological processes and history in an attempt to map out the evolution of Martian surface features and its water.
- The Ingenuity helicopter is autonomous and will function independently of the Perseverance. It is a tech demonstrator — built to test the ability to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere.
- It weighs 1.8 kg, is solar-powered and carries two cameras. It is less than half a metre high and has a rotary wingspan of 1.2 m.
- Ingenuity will fly a total of five times, climbing up to a height of 10 m for a maximum of 3 minutes during each flight.
Search for life on Mars
- The Jezero crater, which is a large landing site on Mars is believed to be most likely to harbour life, if at all.
- This 49 km-wide structure was a 250 m deep lake that held liquid water about 3.5 billion years ago. Even today, it consists of rich clay deposits and shows evidence of river deltas carved by the continuous flow of surface water.
- The presence of water is thought to be a good indicator of habitability on extra-terrestrial bodies because water is necessary for life on Earth.
- It is an effective solvent, disperses minerals and nutrients efficiently, maintains optimal thermal conditions and facilitates organic biochemical reactions.
- The rover will collect and store 31 samples of rock cores and surface soil to bring back to Earth later in a future mission.
- The Mars 2020 mission joins two other missions heading towards the Red Planet in this 2020 launch window: The United Arab Emirates’ Hope mission, its first mission beyond the Earth’s orbit that was launched 10 days before Mars 2020 on 20 July. It consists of an orbiter that will study the planet’s gases as well.
- China, too, launched its mission called the Tianwen-1 on 23 July, which consists of an orbiter and a rover. If successful, this will also be China’s first mission to reach Mars.
- All three missions will reach Mars in February, and all three intend to look for signs of present or past life on the planet.
- Notably, NASA has been sending rovers on Mars since 1997 when the Mars Pathfinder Mission was initiated.
- As the mission turned out to be successful, NASA decided to continue going to Mars to find evidence.
- The Second time, the space organization sent twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity to Mars in 2003. The third attempt was by sending Curiosity in 2012.
- After this, NASA has sent Perseverance in 2020 for proper analysis of Martian land.