A new era of Mars exploration began Thursday with the launch of the Perseverance rover, which was built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and is billed as the most technologically advanced machinery ever sent to the Red Planet.
The SUV-sized rover Perseverance launched at 4:50 a.m. California time from Cape Canaveral in Florida, boosted into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. If all goes as planned, the rover will land on Mars on Feb. 18, landing in the planet’s Jezero Crater.
Katie Stack Morgan, a deputy project scientist at JPL, said the crater is home to “one of the best preserved deltas on the surface of Mars.” She said the location will give the rover access to some of the oldest rocks in the solar system.
The study of those samples will address “some big-picture questions,” she said, including “how did the surface and climate of Mars evolve over time, how do rocky planets form and differentiate, and, of course, was life ever present on Mars.”
Perseverance includes an array of scientific instruments, and it will make space history on at least two fronts:
— the rover will be equipped with a mini helicopter that will become the first ever flown on another planet; and
— Perseverance will also collect rocks and soil that will be stored for a future return to Earth, marking the beginning of an unprecedented round-trip journey to another planet.
“Scientists have wanted a sample of Mars to study for generations,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said during a recent mission briefing. “We have meteorites on Earth that came from Mars, but it’s not the same as getting an actual sample of pristine Mars rocks and soil to study. And now we’re at a point where we can begin to attempt this amazing feat.”
The historic recovery of Mars soil and rock samples will be done in partnership with the European Space Agency. According to Glaze, the Perseverance rover will drill and collect samples, then store them on the surface of the planet.
“In 2026, a `fetch rover’ will be launched to collect those samples and bring them to a rocket that will launch them into orbit around Mars,” Glaze said. “Another orbiter will rendezvous and capture those samples for safe delivery to Earth.”
But long before that, Perseverance will be performing a host of other tasks, including a search for signs of ancient life on the planet, and potentially laying more groundwork for eventual manned missions to Mars.
Perseverance’s primary science mission is astrobiological — the “study of how life comes to be, environments that support life and the search to see if life exists anywhere beyond Earth,” Glaze said.
“The rover’s instruments will also look for evidence of ancient habitable environments and monitor environmental conditions to help us better understand how to protect future human explorers,” she said.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in June the Perseverance mission remained a top priority for the agency throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
“This mission was one of two missions that we protected to make sure we were going to be able to launch in July,” he said. “And the reason that’s important is because of the alignment. When you talk about Earth and Mars being on the same side of the sun, that happens once every 26 months. So it’s very expensive if we have to take Perseverance and put it back into storage for a period of two years, it could cost half a billion dollars.
“So this is an important mission for a whole host of reasons,” he said. “But what I really hope is that people watch this mission and that they are inspired that we know that we can strive and achieve even in the midst of very challenging times.”
He said one of the most exciting payloads on the 2,300-pound rover is a small helicopter known as Ingenuity. The copter will allow a wider exploration of the planet’s surface, and it will mark the first time a helicopter has been flown “on another world.”
“That’s something that’s never been done before in human history,” Bridenstine said.
He said the Perseverance mission is a key stepping stone in a larger journey.
“We have been given a directive to go to Mars with humans, and in order to achieve that we’re doing two things,” he said. “Number one, we’re building an architecture at the moon, where people are going to be able to sustain for long periods of time. … The other thing we’re doing is we’re moving forward with these robotic precursor missions so one day when we send humans to Mars, we’re going to know where to go to get the absolute best science and data that we can get.”