Launched on 30 July, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is sending the Mars rover ‘Perseverance’ to search for traces of ancient life and study samples of rock and soil in a crater that once held a lake nine times the size of Loch Ness.
It was launched at 07:50 local time from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on an Atlas V-541 rocket, for a mission at least the length of one Mars year, about 687 days. After a seven-month long journey of 480 million kilometres, the rover will land on 18 February 2021 in Jezero Crater near the Martian equator.
Jezero Crater, measuring 45 km across, was the site of a lake and river delta 4 billion years ago. Scientists selected it as a prime location to hunt for fossilised microbes due to deposits of carbonates along its rim, minerals which are good at preserving fossilized life on Earth. The presence of carbonates, shown in satellite images of Mars, hints at the possibility of finding structures similar to stromatolites, rocks formed by ancient microbial life on shorelines.
Perseverance, its name chosen by the winner of NASA’s essay competition, seventh-grader Alex Mather, is about the same size as their previous rover, Curiosity. It measures 3 metres long, 2.2 metres tall, and 2.7 metres wide and weighs 1025 kg. Also like its predecessor, it gets its power from the radioactive decay of plutonium, within its Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator.
However, much of the technology onboard is new. As well as seven instruments for tasks like analysing chemical composition and demonstrating oxygen production, Perseverance carries two microphones and 23 cameras. With these, scientists hope to record the sounds of the descent, landing, and driving around on Mars to accompany the video footage captured.
Mounted on the end of Perseverance’s robotic arm are two of the cutting-edge scienctific instruments. SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) will map the mineralogy and organic molecules around Jezero Crater, and is the first UV Raman spectrometer to travel to Mars. PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) is an instrument for measuring fine-scale elemental makeup of rocks that will allow analysis in greater detail than ever before.
Attached to the rover is the Mars helicopter ‘Ingenuity’, a 1.8kg aircraft that hopes to demonstrate the first ever powered flight on another world. In Spring 2020 it will commence test flights, each one a milestone for flight in Mars’ thin atmosphere. If successful, similar autonomous helicopters could be deployed to scout terrain, and maybe even as assistance for human explorers.
The Mars 2020 mission also has a focus on trialling potential technology for future exploration by astronauts. Samples of spacesuit materials are riding onboard the rover to Mars for endurance testing. One of the scientific instruments is MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), which takes atmospheric carbon dioxide to produce oxygen. Future versions of this technology may provide vital oxygen for both rocket fuel and breathable air in crewed missions.
Perseverance is the first of NASA’s Mars rovers that is equipped specifically for detecting life, whether current or fossilised. However, its analytical capabilities are still limited compared to laboratories on Earth, so the most promising samples will be packaged to be returned home. Perseverance will store these samples in small metal canisters and leave them in Jezero crater to be picked up by future missions later this decade, with them eventually arriving on Earth in 2031.
Written by Catriona Roy and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.