NASA is continuing exploration of the planet Mars by launching the rover Perseverance this summer. The primary goal of this ambitious mission is to collect samples that will eventually be brought back to Earth, and to test technologies for future manned missions.
About every two years, the Earth and Mars are in favorable positions that allow for a shorter journey to the red planet. That will be the case in 2020, and NASA is launching a new mission that will set down on Martian soil in February 2021. For the occasion a new technique will be used to guide the probe in the descent phases and should allow it to hit the target with an accuracy of 600 meters.
That target will be Jezero crater, which filled with water after the impact that created it. There are also traces of the former rivers and deltas that flowed into the lake. This geologically diversified region may contain traces of ancient microbial life.
Picking up samples of Martian soil
The size of a car, Perseverance is equipped with seven scientific instruments and 23 cameras that will guide the probe and the instruments.
The spacecraft will study the geology of the Jezero area and select sites for collecting samples from the soil. Those samples will be transferred into tubes that the rover will deposit on the planet’s surface. Another space mission is scheduled for 2026 to collect the samples and then bring them back to Earth in 2031 so that they can be studied in detail.
Preparing future manned missions
Another goal of the Perseverance mission is testing instruments and technologies that might be used in future manned missions.
The instrument MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) will produce oxygen from carbon dioxide molecules in the Martian atmosphere, the oxygen eventually serving as fuel for a vessel coming back to Earth and for powering the station where the astronauts will live during their stay on Mars.
The rover will also be equipped with a weather station whose instruments will be used to characterize the climate on Mars. In addition to measuring the temperature, humidity and winds that prevail on the planet, the instruments will determine the properties of the dust present in the atmosphere.
Testing an experimental helicopter
Finally, Perseverance will be transporting a small helicopter, named Ingenuity, which will be tested during the first days on Mars. This will be the first time that the device flies on another planet in a self-controlled way. The difficulty will consist in flying in an atmosphere 167 times more tenuous than on Earth.
Perseverance’s primary mission should last one Martian year, the equivalent of two years on Earth.
With Perseverance, planetologists are pursuing a long-standing dream by taking the first definitive steps towards a manned mission on Mars.