Perseverance is on its way to Mars, landing on 18 February 2021.

NASA’s Perseverance rover uses its Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) instrument to analyse a rock on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Mars 2020 is NASA’s latest mission to the Red Planet. It launched on 30 July this year, carrying the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, the most advanced rover ever sent to Mars. Perseverance will help NASA to determine whether Mars was once habitable, and will carry out demonstrations and collect useful data to help NASA prepare for future human missions to the planet. The mission will also test the first powered flight on Mars, using the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, which is currently strapped to the underside of Perseverance for the voyage to Mars.

 

What are Perseverance’s main objectives?

The Perseverance rover has four main scientific objectives which will answer questions in Astrobiology, looking at the potential of Mars as a place where life could exist. These are:

  1. Searching for past environments which were capable of supporting microbial life
  2. Looking in those environments for signs of past microbial life
  3. Collecting core Martian rock and soil samples and storing them on Mars’s surface
  4. Testing a method for producing oxygen from Mars’s atmosphere

 

What’s new with this rover?

With a design based on the previous Curiosity rover, which launched in November 2011, NASA’s new Perseverance rover will be able to travel long distances across the Martian surface. But improvements such as more capable wheels and an improved navigation system mean the rover can cover more distance on its own. One of the most significant upgrades over Curiosity is Perseverance’s ability to self-drive for a distance of up to 200m per day. As it drives along, it uses on-board sensors to build a map of the terrain ahead, meaning it is less reliant on instructions sent up from engineers on Earth.

 

How will Perseverance look for signs of ancient microbial life?

A new set of science instruments have been added to help Perseverance search for biosignatures — the traces left behind by life. A subsurface radar will scan the ground beneath the rover to reveal geologic features, such as water ice. This will be the first time the subsurface of Mars has been studied in high resolution. A laser microimager in the head of the rover will use a camera, laser, and spectrometers to scan for organic compounds in Martian rocks and soils, which may be evidence of past microbial life. 

On Perseverance’s robotic arm is an ultraviolet spectrometer, used to search for minerals, organic molecules, and potential biosignatures. And next to it, an X-ray spectrometer, which measures the chemical composition of rocks at a very high resolution. Perseverance also carries its own weather station to measure wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, and the size and amount of dust particles in Mars’s atmosphere. Measuring environmental conditions is an important step in planning a future human mission to the planet. As well as these instruments, NASA is, for the first time, equipping its rover with microphones to listen to the surface of Mars.

 

How long will the mission take?

The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover launched on an Atlas V-541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on 30 July this year. Its voyage to Mars will take about seven months, covering 300 million miles. During this cruise phase of the mission, engineers on Earth monitor the spacecraft to ensure the correct functioning of its instruments. They will make corrections to its trajectory and attitude (the orientation of a spacecraft relative to its direction of travel) to keep its antenna pointed towards Earth for communications, and its solar panels angled towards the Sun.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover onboard launches from Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, July 30, 2020, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky.

To minimise the power required for the spacecraft to travel to Mars, the mission is timed for when the planets are in optimal positions relative to each other. Earth and Mars have different orbits around the Sun, and only once every 26 months do they align for the most energy-efficient trip.

Illustration of the route Mars 2020 takes to the Red Planet, including several trajectory correction manoeuvres (TCMs) to adjust its flight path. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Perseverance is due to land on Mars on 18 February 2021. A combination of parachutes and retrorockets will slow the lander down in its descent, before the rover is lowered to the surface by the descent stage Sky Crane. As the descent stage approaches the surface, it will take photos,  compare them to a map, and make adjustments to the landing location as necessary to avoid uneven terrain.

The mission is set to last at least one Mars year (about 687 Earth days).

 

Where will Perseverance land?

Perseverance will land at Jezero Crater, a crater which once held an ancient lake. Jezero Crater was chosen because it preserves evidence that it was completely filled with water: an inflow channel and an outflow channel show that water flowed into the crater, filled it up, and flowed out. It is likely that any microorganisms that may have lived in the lake were preserved, making Jezero Crater a unique target on Mars to look for signs of ancient microbial life.

Jezero Crater on Mars, the landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. This image was taken by instruments on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which regularly takes images of potential landing sites for future missions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL.

 

How will the mission help pave the way for future human missions?

The rover is equipped with a scientific instrument called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) which will demonstrate a method for the production of oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is about 96% carbon dioxide. Oxygen will be used in human expeditions to Mars for breathing and for making the propellant needed to return humans to Earth.

 

Where is Perseverance now?

The spacecraft carrying Perseverance departed Earth at a speed of about 24,600 mph, on a trajectory for Mars. At the time of writing the spacecraft is 56,000,000 miles from Earth, in the cruise phase of the mission, during which engineers can make adjustments to its flightpath, ensuring it will arrive at Jezero Crater on 18 February 2021.

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