Mars 2020 Perseverance
Why This MissionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Full image and caption
Billions of years ago, Earth and Mars were more similar than they are today. Both had liquid water at the surface; both had magnetic fields to protect their surface from the Sun’s radiation. Life developed on Earth at that time, so could it also have developed on Mars?
NASA has sent rovers, landers, and orbiters to the Red Planet to investigate that key astrobiological question. Scientists can study rocks and sediment on the Martian surface to learn what environments once existed, whether and for how long liquid water was once present, and what the climate was like in the past. This record can reveal when and where Mars had the ideal conditions for life.
But Perseverance is different: It’s the first Mars rover designed to collect samples that will one day be returned to Earth. Despite the immense technical capabilities of the rover’s science instruments, there are far more powerful laboratories and science tools on our planet than we could hope to send to Mars. As with the Moon samples returned by the Apollo missions, Mars samples would benefit future generations of scientists who will study them using advanced technology, some of which hasn’t been invented yet.
The Mars 2020 mission also looks ahead to the day when astronauts travel to Mars. It carries technologies that could help land humans or equipment on the planet and even help produce rocket propellant and breathable oxygen. These efforts, detailed below, will feed into NASA’s plans for sending humans to Mars, with the Artemis program returning astronauts to the Moon as the first step.
Perseverance will contribute to the overarching goals of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program:
Determine whether life ever existed
Characterize the climate
Characterize the geology
Prepare for human exploration
To reach the first three goals, NASA has determined the following more specific science objectives for Perseverance:
- Understand the geology of the field site explored by the Perseverance rover.
- Determine whether Perseverance’s landing site, Jezero Crater, could have supported microbial life in the distant past, and search for evidence that such ancient life may have left behind.
- Select and collect samples representing the geologic diversity of the Perseverance field site, focusing on materials with the highest potential to preserve signs of life and planetary evolution. Keep these samples pristine, isolating them from Earth-sourced contaminants.
NASA has also tasked the Mars 2020 team with a mission objective to prepare for future human exploration by conducting the following investigations:
- With the MOXIE experiment, demonstrate a technology that converts carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. In the future, oxygen generated this way could be used by astronauts for rocket propellant and for breathing. More on MOXIE below.
- With data from the MEDA instrument, study how atmospheric dust could affect future technology, including human life support systems.
- Study how Mars weather could affect human explorers. More on MEDA below.
- With MEDLI2, use sensors in the rover’s heat shield and back shell to better understand entry into the Martian atmosphere. This can help spacecraft engineers design safe landings for future astronauts traveling to Mars. More information on MEDLI2 is here.
Several instruments on Perseverance involve international partners. Image credit: NASAS/JPL-Caltech | + View Larger Image
Perseverance’s science instruments are state-of-the-art tools for acquiring information about Martian geology, atmosphere, environmental conditions, and potential signs of life (biosignatures) from the past. The mission’s science supports the field of astrobiology, which aims to understand the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe.
Perseverance has seven primary payload instruments.
Jim Bell, Arizona State University, Tempe
Mastcam-Z is a pair of next-generation science cameras on Perseverance’s remote sensing mast, or “head.” This pair of zoomable cameras can be used to shoot video and to create high-resolution, color stereo/3D panoramas of the Martian landscape in multiple spectra of light. These images also help rover operators drive and position the rover’s arm instruments. Analysis of the landing site’s geology viewed in Mastcam-Z images will help scientists determine the history of the landing site region.
MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer)
Jose Rodriguez-Manfredi, Centro de Astrobiología, at the Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial, Madrid, Spain
MEDA is a set of sensors distributed over Perseverance’s mast and body that measures wind speed and direction, air pressure, relative humidity, ambient temperature, and solar radiation. Solar radiation affects the surface environment and is important to understand more fully before sending humans to Mars. A skyward-facing camera, SkyCam measures how tiny airborne particles, or aerosols, such as dust and ice can affect sunlight reaching the surface.
This set of sensors was built by an international team led by Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología.
MOXIE (Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment)
Michael Hecht, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge
MOXIE is a technology demonstration that will show whether such technology could be used to help launch rockets off the surface of Mars in the future. (The “I” in MOXIE stands for “in-situ resource utilization,” or ISRU – the concept of using resources found where a spacecraft lands rather than bringing those resources from Earth.) MOXIE converts carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen, which is required in massive quantities in order to launch rockets. To burn enough rocket fuel to launch themselves back to Earth, future astronauts will require tens of metric tons of liquid oxygen. The MOXIE experiment aboard Perseverance is about the size of a car battery and can produce enough oxygen to sustain a small dog. A system that produces breathing oxygen for human missions would need to be about 200 times larger.
PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry)
Abigail Allwood, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Southern California
Located on the end of Perseverance’s robotic arm, PIXL aims a tiny but powerful X-ray beam at rocks. This produces a different “glow,” or fluorescence, depending on the rock’s elemental chemistry. PIXL creates postage stamp-size “maps,” revealing how and where these chemicals are positioned relative to each other as well as to a rock’s textures and structures. That information can help scientists determine how these features formed, including whether they were biological in nature.
RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment)
Svein-Erik Hamran, University of Oslo, Norway
RIMFAX is the first ground-penetrating radar to be carried by a rover or lander to Mars. Such radar systems have been used by orbiting spacecraft, but bringing them to the surface offers much higher-resolution data. RIMFAX determines how different layers of the Martian surface formed over time.
The Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) in Kjeller, Norway, provided the instrument.
SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals)
Luther Beegle, JPL
SHERLOC is located near PIXL on Perseverance’s robotic arm. As PIXL looks for elemental chemistry, SHERLOC looks for organic molecules and minerals. While the presence of organic molecules helps scientists determine which samples to collect for future return to Earth, the presence of different minerals helps explain how a sample was formed. SHERLOC flashes an ultraviolet laser over surface material, which emits a subtly different glow depending on which organic compounds and minerals are present. SHERLOC also has a camera for taking microscopic images of rock grains and surface textures.
Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico
This next-generation version of Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument is located on Perseverance’s mast. Like its predecessor, SuperCam uses a pulsed laser to study the chemistry of rocks and sediment. It also uses three new techniques to probe the mineral content of its targets and the hardness of the rocks. One of these techniques heats small amounts of the target to around 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit (10,000 degrees Celsius), creating a bright “spark.” SuperCam can then determine the chemical makeup of these rocks from the plasma generated by the laser zaps.
SuperCam is a collaboration between Los Alamos National Laboratory and France’s Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie (IRAP), which provided key parts of the instrument, including a special microphone. Spain built and tested the SuperCam calibration target assembly. The Spanish contributions were supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (MICINN), and by the University of Valladolid as well as local and regional governments.
Science Team Leadership
Ken Farley, Caltech, Pasadena, California
Deputy Project Scientists:
Katie Stack Morgan, JPL
Ken Williford, JPL