NASA is gearing up to launch its Perseverance rover and Ingenuity drone helicopter to hunt for signs of microbial life on Mars next month.
The Mars 2020 mission is the first step towards the space agency’s goal of obtaining samples of rock and soil and preparing them for return back to Earth. "Fifty-one years ago today, NASA was deep into final preparations for the first Moon landing," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Wednesday.
"Today we stand at the threshold of another monumental moment in exploration: sample collection at Mars. As we celebrate the heroes of Apollo 11 today, future generations may well recognize the women and men of Perseverance - not only for what they will achieve 100 million miles from home, but for what they were able to accomplish on this world on the road to launch."
The goal is to send Perseverance to Jezero, one of the largest and oldest craters on the Red Planet, which scientists believe was once filled with water. The rocks there are about three-and-a-half to four billion years old, Katie Stack Morgan, a deputy scientist working on the mission from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, estimated during a live NASA broadcast.
"Jezero is the best preserved delta, where rivers deposited rocks and sand," she said. There may also be carbonate minerals along the inner rim of the crater left over as the water evaporated.
The SUV-sized rover will drill into the surface and place the samples into tubes. These tubes will be grouped together and scattered across Mars for another rover to collect and bring back into a spacecraft that will eventually fly back to Earth to return the samples. The whole effort may take up to 10 years and requires multiple vehicles and the help of the European Space Agency.
Lori Glaze, the director of NASA's Planetary Division, said Mars 2020 is an astrobiology mission and is "the search to see if life exists anywhere beyond Earth." NASA is looking for signs of ancient microbes in the layers of Martian rocks.
Stack Morgan pointed out that scientists studying early life on Earth look at similar structures like stromatolites, where the textures and chemical composition, show that they could only have been created by microorganisms.
Perseverance will also deploy a small robotic drone named Ingenuity to scout out areas that look interesting for the rover to drive to. It'll be the first helicopter to fly on any planet other than Earth.
The one ton rover, however, is the main instrument in the mission. It comes equipped with various cameras and instruments, including one that can convert carbon dioxide to oxygen to see if it’s possible to use as a potential fuel reserve for Martian astronauts one day.
Perseverance is also the cleanest system to be launched to the Red Planet. Scientists are going to be looking for trace chemicals from billions of years ago, and must be careful not to contaminate the vehicle with any material from Earth.
The launch date is 20 July. NASA is taking advantage of a time window that ends on 11 August, where both Mars and Earth’s orbits are aligned. This is something that happens every 26 months. Bridenstine said that it was important that NASA completes the launch by this time, as waiting another two years or so would jeopardize the mission.
If all goes to plan, Perseverance will land in the Jezero crater on 18 February 2021. It'll come into the Martian atmosphere protected by a heat shield and then deploy the world's largest supersonic-rated parachute.
Once it gets closer to the surface, the parachute and then the heat shield are ejected and the delivery sled is deployed. A rocket platform with eight hydrazine thrusters will hover over the surface and lower the rover gently to the surface on cables, then detach and crash at a safe distance. It sounds bizarre but it worked well last time.
"The mission has one launch, 314 million miles of interplanetary space and seven minutes of terror to get safely onto the surface of Mars," said Glaze. "When we see the landscape at Jezero Crater for the first time and we truly begin to realize the scientific bounty before us, the fun really begins." ®