There are now just four days remaining until NASA’s new Mars rover, Perseverance, lands in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. This mission is an exciting one, to search for direct evidence of past life on Mars. Perseverance will not only study samples of rock and soil in its onboard lab, it will also store some samples for later return to Earth, where they can be analyzed in even greater detail.
Perseverance physically resembles its predecessor, Curiosity, which is also still actively exploring Gale Crater after landing in 2012. Curiosity has focused on determining whether Gale Crater was habitable a few billion years ago, at least for Earth-type microbes. It has established that indeed it was, with evidence that Gale Crater used to be a lake, with fast-flowing streams that once emptied into it.
Analysis of the mudstones and other rock formations have found abundant clays, minerals and even organic molecules. The organics are not proof of past life in themselves however, and Curiosity wasn’t designed to look for life itself, but what is has found shows that Gale Crater lake would have been a good place for microbes to thrive, if they existed.
Now, Perseverance is about to land in a similar environment, Jezero Crater, which also used to hold a lake. There was even a large delta where a river flowed into the lake and deposited sediments. That delta can still be clearly seen today, and the rover will land very close to it. The sediments, carbonates and clays were already known to exist in the crater, found by orbiting spacecraft. This makes Jezero Crater another ideal place to search for evidence of ancient life, and unlike Curiosity, that is exactly what Perseverance is going there to do.
Perseverance will land the same way that Curiosity did, using a parachute and powered descent, followed by a sky crane descent stage that will lower the rover to the surface using cables. The landing process, as with all Mars landings, is known as Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) or also as the “seven minutes of terror” where, hopefully, everything works and the rover touches down safely.
“If there’s one thing we know, it’s that landing on Mars is never easy,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Communications Marc Etkind. “But as NASA’s fifth Mars rover, Perseverance has an extraordinary engineering pedigree and mission team. We are excited to invite the entire world to share this exciting event with us!”
Perseverance will be the first Mars mission since the Viking 1 and 2 landers in the late 1970s/early 1980s to search for evidence of life, not just habitability.
As well as analyzing some samples in its own laboratory, it will also store core samples of rock and soil in 38 sealed tubes, which will returned to Earth by another mission at a later date. If successful, it will be the first sample return from Mars in history.
“Mars Sample Return is something NASA needs to do as a leading member of the global community,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We know there are challenges ahead, but that’s why we look closely at these architectures. And that’s why in the end, we achieve the big accomplishments.”
“The MSR campaign is a highly ambitious, technically demanding, and multi-faceted planetary exploration program with extraordinary scientific potential for world-changing discoveries,” said David Thompson, retired president and CEO of Orbital ATK, who also chaired the IRB. “After a thorough review of the agency’s planning over the past several years, the IRB unanimously believes that NASA is now ready to carry out the MSR program, the next step for robotic exploration of Mars.”
Overall, there are four main science objectives to the mission:
- Looking for Habitability: Identify past environments capable of supporting microbial life.
- Seeking Biosignatures: Seek signs of possible past microbial life in those habitable environments, particularly in special rocks known to preserve signs of life over time.
- Caching Samples: Collect core rock and “soil” samples and store them on the Martian surface.
- Preparing for Humans: Test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere.
While the rover’s primary goal is to search for evidence of life, it will also study the local geology to better understand its history and just how habitable it really was in Jezero Crater. On Earth, carbonates can both be produced by life and preserve evidence of it, one reason why this place is such a good place to look. Clays can also preserve such evidence.
Potential evidence of life could include chemical traces or even suggestive shapes of fossils in rocks.
Perseverance will also test technologies that could be used by astronauts in the future, including production of propellant and oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, using the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). The Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC), as well as looking for organics, will also carry small pieces of spacesuit material for testing in the harsh conditions.
The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) will study Martian weather.
The rover also has a companion, a small drone-like helicopter called the Mars Helicopter or Ingenuity. Flight tests will be conducted over a 30-day period, first lifting just a few feet off the ground, followed by longer and higher flights. If it works, it will be the first aircraft to fly in the Martian skies. It will fly ahead of the rover as a kind of scout, looking for features of interest to examine closer.
Ingenuity will use solar power to charge its batteries and internal heaters to keep it warm. It weighs 4 pounds (1.8 kg), is about 19 inches (0.49 meters) in height and its rotors span about 4 feet (1.2 meters) across. It is equipped with computers, navigation sensors and two cameras (one color and one black-and-white).
Perseverance is one of the most exciting missions to ever go to Mars. Nobody knows it will find any extinct life, but is the best-equipped mission so far to do so. What secrets does this now-dry lakebed in Jezero Crater hold? Perseverance is about to find out.
Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020 onboard an Atlas V 541 rocket, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
NASA has invited the public to take part in virtual activities on landing day. Live coverage and landing commentary from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will begin at 2:15 p.m. EST on the NASA TV Public Channel and the agency’s website, as well as the NASA App, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitch, Daily Motion and THETA.TV.
More information about Perseverance is available on the mission website.