How NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover Perseverance Will Explore the Red Planet?

Landing on Mars

After a 293 million miles and 203-day journey, the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover has touched down the sandy soil of our neighboring planet Mars. This Thursday February 18, 2021 at 3:55 p.m. EST (12:55 p.m. PST) the mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California announced the successful touchdown.

The Mars 2020 Mission was launched on July 30, 2020 aboard an Atlas V-541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. After a seven month journey to the Red Planet, the mission is intended to investigate an astrobiologically relevant ancient environment on Mars and to collect Mars soil sampled that will be returned to Earth by a future space mission.

Mars
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Rover Perseverance, a JPL-designed, NASA-managed rover, carries with it a collection of instruments and cameras created by nine international teams and five national agencies to search the Red Planet for signs of ancient life – or better yet – signs of something that might have killed all potential life before it began.

“The Mars Perseverance mission embodies our nation’s spirit of persevering even in the most challenging of situations, inspiring, and advancing science and exploration. The mission itself personifies the human ideal of persevering toward the future and will help us prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. Perseverance is not simply the next step in Mars exploration—it is the next giant leap.

The Mars Perseverance Rover mission has been designed to find evidence of past life on Mars and pave the way for future human exploration. It is outfitted with a variety of technology intended to survive the harsh Martian environment and search for signs of past or present habitation.

Mars 2020 Mission and the Jezero Crater

The Mars Rover will land at Jezero Crater near the Martian equator, one of the most intriguing sites on Mars and located only 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) from Curiosity’s landing site. It will conduct geological assessments of its landing site, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The landing site is an ancient delta that once drained water into the 28 miles (45 kilometers) diameter Jezero Crater from a large crater lake. The area was likely habitable when the lake existed, and could have been home to microbial life. The exploration of early Earth environments and key transitions in its history may help us understand whether life is common in the universe.

The Perseverance Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign has two primary science goals: 1) to document and assess the habitability of the basin; and 2) to collect and store a scientifically representative sequence of rock, dust and soil samples from the MSR site for eventual return to Earth. The MSR mission is a sample return mission that collects surface samples for later return to Earth. The MSR mission takes us to our roots by providing information essential to understanding the origin of the solar system while also sending back information and experience vital to future science missions.

Source of Energy

The MMRTG, or Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, is a “Multi-Mission” generator because it was designed to supply electricity by converting heat from the natural radioactive decay of Plutonium-238 . With a total weight of 99 pounds (45 kilograms), the MMRTG contains 10.6 pounds (4.8 kilograms) of plutonium dioxide as its heat source.

The MMRTG is also a thermal system that maintains all the Mars rover systems at their operating temperatures. Even if the Perseverance mission duration is about one Mars year (two Earth years), the MMRTG is designed to operate for 14 Earth years, giving to this system a high reliability. With its long-range mobility system, the rover will be able to travel on the surface of Mars over 3 to 12 miles (5 to 20 kilometers), giving the MMRTG an important role to the Perseverance success.

A set of instruments for a comprehensive exploration

The Mars Rover Perseverance will take the search for life on the Red Planet to a whole new level, with seven different instruments to explore Mars’ potential past and future habitability. All the seven instruments weight no more than 130 pounds (59 kilograms):

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
  • Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA)
  • Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization
    Experiment (MOXIE)
  • Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL)
  • Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX)
  • Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman Luminescence for Organics Chemicals (SHERLOC)
  • Mastcam-Z
  • SuperCam

The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) is an instrument that will measure a wide range of parameters of the martian atmosphere, such as temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity, and dust size and shape. In addition, MEDA will analyze the dust in the martian atmosphere in order to better assess its chemical composition. In other words, MEDA will help predict weather on Mars to help future astronauts having a better knowledge of weather conditions.

With the optimistic goal of providing future human explorers a life-sustaining supply of oxygen, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) will represent NASA’s first technology demonstration of oxygen production on the Martian surface from carbon dioxide. If successful, MOXIE could become a mainstay in future human exploration missions to Mars.

PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) will be mounted on the rover’s robotic arm, for close-up analysis of rock and soil samples by a suite of X-ray sensors. The PIXL will use an X-ray beam to identify the elemental composition of rocks and soils at a very small scale, allowing the instrument to find small traces of life that microbes could have left behind.

With less than 6.6 pounds, the Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) is designed to penetrate more than 30 feet into the layers of the Red Planet’s subsurface. RIMFAX will scan the subsurface layers with resolution as small as 3 inches (76 millimeters), creating three-dimensional images of the composition and structure beneath the rover. “No one knows what lies beneath the surface of Mars. Now, we’ll finally be able to see what’s there,” explains Svein-Erik Hamran, Principal Investigator of the instruments. RIMFAX will detect ice, water or salty brines of more than 30 feet (10 meters) beneath the surface of Mars!

The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument will illuminate whether life ever existed on the Red Planet and will provide critical environmental intelligence for future crews. SHERLOC consists of two separate instruments that look at rocks, soil, and the atmosphere with Raman spectroscopy and portable luminescence. The spectrometer will help us determine the mineralogy of Martian rocks and soils. The portable luminescence, which requires no lighting to work, can detect organic compounds associated with life – something no other instrument has accomplished on another world. SHERLOC is a joint development between JPL and Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego.

Created by the same team that built and operates Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on the surface of Mars, MastCam-Z is a pair of zoomable cameras on Perseverance’s remote sensing mast. Together they create dazzling high-resolution 3D color panoramas of interesting geologic targets. Also, both cameras can capture detailed images of rocks and soil from distances as far away as 7 meters (23 feet) – nearly twice the distance of their identical sister camera on Curiosity.

Mastcam-Z can zoom from wide-angle to narrow field of view and capture static images in color and stereoscopic 3D with a color camera, and measure fine details within rocks, such as grain size, using red or blue band imaging. The instruments also can obtain a full color mosaic of the Martian landscape using stereo pair images generated from co-aligned pairs of left-eye and right-eye images.

The SuperCam, based on pulsed laser, gives scientists a nondestructive way to analyze the atomic and molecular composition of rocks and sediment on Mars as they sit in one place – say, at the bottom of a crater. Supercam can study rock targets as small as a pencil point located at 20 feet (7 meters).

Now, it’s time to let the engineers and scientists go through the pre-defined sequence of testing to check and calibrate every instrument, subsystem, and subroutine over the next month or two.

Let’s fly on Mars

Only later on, the 4-pounds Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will deploy from the belly of the Mars Rover Perseverance. The Mars Helicopter is part of a technology demonstration that will attempt the first flight of a helicopter on another planet. The flight will be controlled remotely by a pilot on Earth. This is the first time such an aircraft has been built to fly on another world; it could also provide an option for future exploration missions.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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