Mars 2020 Perseverance
NASA's next mission to Mars — the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission — is targeted to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station no earlier than July 20, 2020. It will land in Jezero Crater on the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021. Perseverance is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to Mars, with a name that embodies NASA's passion for taking on and overcoming challenges. It will search for signs of ancient microbial life, characterize the planet's geology and climate, collect carefully selected and documented rock and sediment samples for possible return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration beyond the Moon.
Perseverance will also ferry a separate technology experiment to the surface of Mars — a helicopter named Ingenuity, the first aircraft to fly in a controlled way on another planet.
Seven Things to Know About the Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission
The Perseverance rover, built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, is loaded with scientific instruments, advanced computational capabilities for landing and other new systems. With a chassis about 10 feet (3 meters) long, Perseverance is also the largest, heaviest robotic Mars rover NASA has built. What drives its ambitious mission and what will it do at the Red Planet? Here are seven things you should know about Perseverance:
1. The Perseverance rover embodies the NASA — and the American — spirit of overcoming challenges.
Getting the spacecraft to the launch pad this summer has required an extended effort. Concept studies and early technology work started a decade ago — years before the project was formally announced in December 2012. Landing on another planet, searching for signs of ancient life, collecting samples and proving new technologies will also be tough. These challenges epitomize why NASA chose the name Perseverance from among the 28,000 essays submitted during the "Name the Rover" contest. The months leading up to the launch in particular have required creative problem solving and teamwork during the coronavirus pandemic.
As Alex Mather of Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia, wrote in his winning essay, "We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere. We, not as a nation but as humans, will not give up."
2. Perseverance builds on the lessons of other Mars rovers.
NASA's first rover on Mars was modest: Sojourner, the size of a microwave oven, demonstrated in 1997 that a robot could rove on the Red Planet. NASA's next Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were each the size of a golf cart. After landing in 2004, they discovered evidence that the planet once hosted running water before becoming a frozen desert. The car-sized Curiosity rover landed in 2012. Curiosity discovered that its landing site, Gale Crater, hosted a lake billions of years ago and an environment that could have supported microbial life. Perseverance aims to take the next step, seeking, as a primary goal, to answer one of the key questions of astrobiology: Are there potential signs of past microbial life, or biosignatures on Mars?
This demanding science goal requires a new suite of cutting-edge instruments to tackle the question from many angles. The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument, which can detect organic matter, and the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), which measures the composition of rocks and soil, will allow Perseverance to map organic matter, chemical composition and texture together at a higher level of detail than any Mars rover has done before. These instruments — two of the seven total onboard — will play a particularly important role in Perseverance’s search for potential signs of life.
3. The rover will be landing in a place with high potential for finding signs of past microbial life.
Jezero Crater on Mars is a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. The crater was a possible oasis in its distant past.
Between 3 billion and 4 billion years ago, a river there flowed into a body of water the size of Lake Tahoe, depositing sediments packed with carbonite minerals and clay. The Perseverance science team believes this ancient river delta could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life.
4. Perseverance will also be collecting important data about Mars' geology and climate.
Context is everything. Mars orbiters have been collecting images and data from Jezero Crater from about 200 miles (322 kilometers) above, but finding signs of ancient life on the surface requires much closer inspection. It requires a rover like Perseverance. Understanding Mars' past climate conditions and reading the geological history embedded in its rocks will give scientists a richer sense of what the planet was like in its distant past. Studying the Red Planet's geology and climate could also give us a sense of why Earth and Mars — which formed from the same primordial stuff — ended up so different.
5. Perseverance is the first leg of a round trip to Mars.
The verification of ancient life on Mars carries an enormous burden of proof. Perseverance is the first rover to bring a sample caching system to Mars that will package promising samples for return to Earth by a future mission. Rather than pulverizing rock the way Curiosity's drill does, Perseverance's drill will cut intact rock cores that are about the size of a piece of chalk and will place them in sample tubes that it will store until the rover reaches an appropriate drop-off location.
A Mars sample return campaign is being planned by NASA and the European Space Agency because here on Earth we can investigate the samples with instruments too large and complex to send to Mars. Examining those samples on Earth will provide far more information about them than even the most sophisticated rover could provide.
6. Perseverance carries instruments and technology that will pave the way for future human missions to the Moon and Mars.
Among the future-looking technologies on the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission that will benefit human exploration is the rover's Terrain-Relative Navigation system. Part of the landing system, Terrain-Relative Navigation is the main reason Perseverance can explore a place as interesting as Jezero Crater. It will enable the rover to quickly and autonomously comprehend its location over the Martian surface and modify its trajectory during descent. This technology will be able to provide invaluable assistance for both robotic and crewed missions landing on the Moon and is a must for future robotic and crewed exploration of Mars.
Engineers have also given Perseverance more self-driving smarts than any other rover, allowing it to cover more ground in a day's operations without having to wait for engineers on Earth to send up instructions. Calculated over the length of the mission, this fast pace can translate into more science. This fast-traverse capability (courtesy of upgraded sensors, computers and algorithms) will make exploration of the Moon, Mars and other celestial bodies more efficient for other spacecraft.
Perseverance also carries a technology demonstration — a proof-of-concept experiment — called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment). This instrument will produce oxygen from Mars' carbon dioxide atmosphere, demonstrating a way that future explorers might produce oxygen for rocket propellant as well as for breathing.
The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) instrument suite will also be key for future human exploration, providing information about the current weather and climate, as well as the nature of the dust on the surface. The Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation 2 (MEDLI2) package, a next-generation version of what flew on the Mars Science Laboratory mission that delivered the Curiosity rover, will help human exploration, too, providing data about the entry and descent of the spacecraft through the atmosphere.
7. You will get to ride along.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission carries more cameras than any interplanetary mission in history. The Perseverance rover itself has 19 cameras that will deliver images of the landscape in breathtaking detail. The other parts of the spacecraft involved in entry, descent and landing carry four additional cameras, potentially allowing engineers to put together a high-definition view of the landing process after the rover safely touches down on Mars. As with previous Mars missions, the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission plans to make raw and processed images available on the mission's website.
In this spirit of bringing the public along, the Perseverance rover carries an anodized plate with the words "Explore as one" in Morse code and three silicon chips with the names of approximately 10.9 million people who signed up to ride along on Perseverance's journey to Mars.
You can also follow Perseverance's adventure on social media @NASAPersevere and @NASAMars.
Six Things to Know About Ingenuity
Ingenuity, NASA's Mars Helicopter, may weigh only about 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), but it has some outsized ambitions. As the Wright Brothers were the first to achieve powered, controlled flight on our world with their Flyer, Ingenuity's team at JPL expects its helicopter to be the first flyer on another world. Here are six things you should know about the first helicopter going to another planet:
Ingenuity is what is known as a technology demonstration — a project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time, with limited scope. Previous groundbreaking technology demonstrations include the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner and the Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats that flew by Mars.
Ingenuity features four specially made carbon-fiber blades arranged into two 4-foot-long (1.2-meter-long) counter-rotating rotors that spin at around 2,400 rpm — about eight times as fast as a standard helicopter on Earth — plus innovative solar cells, battery, avionics, sensors, telecommunications, and other designs and algorithms. But many of its other components are commercial, off-the-shelf parts from the world of smart phones, including two cameras, an inertial measurement unit (measuring movement), an altimeter (measuring altitude), an inclinometer (measuring tilt angles) and computer processors. The helicopter does not carry science instruments and is a separate experiment from the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission.
Mars has beyond bone-chilling temperatures, with nights as cold as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius) at Jezero Crater. These temperatures will push the original design limits of the off-the-shelf parts used in Ingenuity. Tests on Earth at the predicted temperatures indicate they should work as designed, but the team is looking forward to the real test at Mars. One of Ingenuity's first objectives when it gets to the Red Planet is just to survive the frigid Martian night for the first time.
Mars has a rarefied atmosphere — just 1% of the density of our atmosphere on Earth. Because the Mars atmosphere is so much less dense, Ingenuity is designed to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity's mass on Earth. And Mars gives the helicopter a little help: The gravity at Mars is only about one-third that of Earth's. That means slightly more mass can be lifted at a given spin rate.
There is also the challenge of communication. Delays are an inherent part of communicating with spacecraft across interplanetary distances, which means the helicopter's flight controllers at JPL won't be able to control the helicopter with a joystick.
Therefore, Ingenuity has to fly autonomously. The command to fly will be sent to Ingenuity well in advance, and the engineering data from the flight will be returned to Earth after the flight takes place. Ingenuity will communicate through the rover, which will then communicate with an orbiter that in turn communicates with Earth.
It took humankind a lot of trial and error to figure out how to fly a plane or helicopter on Earth. In careful steps over five years, engineers on the Ingenuity team were able to demonstrate it was possible to build something that was lightweight enough and could generate enough lift in Mars' thin atmosphere to take off from the ground.
Using a special space simulation chamber at JPL, they first showed that a helicopter could lift off in Mars' thin atmosphere in 2014 and then in 2016 that it could fly in a controlled way. They proved a helicopter could be built to survive in Mars' environment and operate as designed in January 2018, by flying a helicopter test model in the chamber with the full functionality that would be required for Mars. In January 2019, the team completed test flights with the actual helicopter that will ride with Perseverance to the Red Planet, demonstrating its capabilities in Mars-like conditions.
Taking off from the surface of Mars and hovering will confirm these previous tests and give practical insight into operating a helicopter on Mars.
Vaneeza Rupani of Northport, Alabama, originally submitted the name Ingenuity for the Mars 2020 rover, but NASA officials recognized the submission as a fitting name for the helicopter, given how much creative thinking the team employed to get their mission off the ground.
"The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration," Rupani wrote. "Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things."
Rupani's essay also unknowingly gave a nod to the rover and the helicopter working together to accomplish great feats in space exploration: Landing people on the Moon and sending rovers to Mars, she wrote, "are not just the product of pure determination; they are a combination of human perseverance and ingenuity."
Given all the firsts Ingenuity is trying to accomplish, the team has a long list of milestones they need to pass before the helicopter can take off and land in the spring of 2021. The team will celebrate if they meet each one. The milestones include:
- Surviving launch from Cape Canaveral, the cruise to Mars and landing on the Red Planet
- Safely deploying to the surface from the belly pan of the Perseverance rover
- Autonomously keeping warm through the intensely cold Martian nights
- Autonomously charging itself with its solar panel
And then, if Ingenuity succeeds in its first flight, the helicopter team will attempt up to four other test flights within a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) window.
Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars. Among the possible uses of a future helicopter on Mars: offering a unique viewpoint not provided by our current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground; high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans; and access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach. A future helicopter could even help carry light but vital payloads from one site to another.