In the first step in an 11-year international collaboration to bring Mars rocks and soil samples back to Earth, NASA is preparing for the launch of its newest Mars rover, dubbed Perseverance.
If all goes well, the 1043-kilogram rover will be launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 20 July, arriving on Mars in February 2021.
Due to the rapidly approaching launch window, Perseverance was one of only two planetary science missions deemed essential enough to be “protected” from delays due to COVID-19, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told an online press conference today.
“It’s very expensive if we have to take Perseverance and put it in storage for two years [until the next launch window],” he said. “It could cost half a billion dollars.”
“This is the most sophisticated mission we’ve ever sent to the Red Planet’s surface,” added Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
Although the rover carries a sizeable suite of instruments, ranging from a weather station to ground-penetrating radar – and even a microphone to listen to the sounds of Mars – its primary purpose is to collect up to 43 core samples of interesting rocks and soils and to cache them for future return to Earth.
To facilitate this, it will be capable of covering terrain much more quickly than the Curiosity rover, now working its way up the slopes of a Martian mountain. “We can drive at twice the speed of Curiosity,” says Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager.
It will also be facilitated by the fact that its destination, 49-kilometre-wide Jezero Crater, has been well studied from orbit, allowing scientists to plan in advance which outcrops look most interesting so that Perseverance can scoot through a wide range of terrain in its first Mars year (about two Earth years) of operation.
Because the researchers will want a diversity of samples for the cache, “we will feel some pressure to cover ground,” says Katie Stack Morgan, the mission’s deputy project scientist.
Jezero is a particularly interesting destination, Morgan says, because it not only contains ancient rocks from a time when Mars was wetter than today, it also has carbonate minerals that may have formed in the bottom of a shallow lake.
There is also a prominent delta created by a river that once flowed into the crater from the surrounding uplands. “It is one of the best-preserved deltas on Mars,” Morgan says.
That’s important because the delta will not only contain rocks and sand washed in from far away, but may contain organic carbon brought in with them – a possible sign of ancient life in the upstream drainage.
The goal, Morgan says, is to find rock formations that might contain signs of ancient life known as biosignatures.
What exact form these might take, if they exist, is unknown. But from Earth, she says, “we know some examples.
For example, in Western Australia, scientists have found oddly layered rocks known as stromatolites, believed to be the fossils of mats of microbes that lived billions of years ago.
“When you couple the texture, the chemical composition, the mineralogy, and the organic carbon, you can start to build a case that that rock could only have formed under the influence of life,” she says of the stromatolites – a case that scientists may someday be able to make for rock cores collected by the rover.
In addition to searching for life signs, she says, the rover will seek rocks that can help provide information about how the Martian surface and climate have evolved, and even clues to the overall process by which rocky planets, like the Earth and Mars, initially formed.
Once collected and cached, these samples will be retrieved by another “fetch” rover, scheduled for launch to Mars in 2026.
They will then be launched into Mars orbit where they will be collected by an ESA spacecraft which will then bring them to Earth—a process that will get them back here in 2031.
“It takes time to get to Mars, time to get the samples, and time to bring them back,” Glaze says.
In addition to its geology instruments, Perseverance will carry a miniature helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, which will attempt to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere, which is only 1 percent as dense as Earth’s.
“This is a technology demonstration, so we can learn how to do this for future missions,” says Wallace.
The launch cannot occur before 20 July. If it is delayed, the window lasts until 11 August and might even be stretched to 15 August if necessary, says Omar Baez, a launch director at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
You can follow the Perseverance mission here.
Richard A Lovett
Richard A Lovett is a Portland, Oregon-based science writer and science fiction author. He is a frequent contributor to Cosmos.
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