Over the past two decades, missions to Mars, especially those done by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, have shown us that the red planet was once very different from the cold, dry wasteland it is today. Evidence gathered by landed and orbital missions demonstrates that billions of years ago, lakes and rivers of liquid water flowed across Mars’ surface. It has also been discovered that these lush environments lasted long enough to have potentially supported the development of microbial life.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover is designed to seek signs of ancient life and better understand the geology of Mars. To achieve this, it will explore the Jezero crater, which scientists believe was a 250m lake 3.5 billion years ago. Today, Jezero features a prominent river delta (where a river enters a body of water) in which huge amounts of sediment were deposited over the eons. It is likely that these sediments include carbonates and hydrated silica (known to preserve biosignatures for billions of years on Earth). The Perseverance will collect and store rock and soil samples from this region, which will then be returned to Earth in the future with the Mars Sample-Return mission.
The Perseverance also aims to demonstrate and test new technologies for future robotic and human exploration. These include an autopilot for avoiding hazards (Terrain Relative Navigation), a set of sensors for gathering data during the landing (MEDLI2), an autonomous navigation system that allows the rover to drive faster in challenging terrain, and MOXIE (see below).
In addition to this, a drone-like helicopter, called Ingenuity, was deployed alongside the Perseverance and will be attached to it. NASA wished to demonstrate powered flight in Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere, where it is considerably harder to generate the lift required to get off the ground.
Key Hardware of Perseverance:
- Mastcam-Z: An advanced camera system that helps the rover move & operate.
- PIXL: A spectrometer and high-resolution imager that maps the elemental composition Martian surface materials.
- SuperCam: An advanced camera that provides imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy at a distance.
- MOXIE: A machine that produces oxygen from Martian CO2. If successful, might be used in future astronauts on Mars.
- SHERLOC: A spectrometer that uses a UV laser to detect possible organics and materials that were altered by water.
- MEDA: A set of sensors that provides measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity, and dust size and shape.
- RIMFAX: A ground-penetrating radar that maps the geology beneath the surface at a centimetre scale.
Size and Dimensions:
- Length: 3 meters
- Width: 2.7 meters
- Height: 2.2 meters
- Weight: 1,025 kilograms
- Power Source: Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. Creates electricity from the heat that comes from natural decay of plutonium-238.
To raise public awareness of the Mars 2020 mission and Perseverance, NASA launched the “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign. Basically, people could send their names to Mars, for free, on a microchip stored inside the Perseverance. After registering, participants received a digital “boarding ticket” with details of the launch and destination. In total, 10,932,295 names were registered.
Launch and Landing:
The Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It travelled through space while enclosed in a protective aeroshell with a heat shield and conical backshell. The aeroshell was attached to a cruise stage with thrusters that ensured the spacecraft kept on course.
After a 470-million-km journey, the spacecraft finally crossed the Martian atmosphere, where its heat shield had to endure temperatures as high as 2,100° C. Once it reached 11km above ground, the spacecraft deployed a parachute, gradually slowing it down from a speed of 2,099km/hr to about 320km/hr. After that, the heat shield dropped away from the backshell, letting the rover, which was attached to a descent stage, fall towards the surface. Eight retrorockets on the descent stage then fired up and slowly lowered Perseverance, as seen below.
Perseverance will stay on the red planet at least one Mars year (two Earth years) exploring the landsite region. Hopefully, from all the data it gathers, it will pave the way for the human exploration and eventual habitation of Mars by 2030.