After a 203-day journey traversing 293 million miles (472 million km), the largest, most advanced rover NASA has sent landed on Mars on Thursday. At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, confirmation of the successful touchdown was announced in mission control at 3:55 P.M. EST (12:55 P.M. PST/ 2:25 A.M. IST).
From Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, the Mars 2020 mission launched, packed with groundbreaking technology, on July 30, 2020. In the effort to collect Mars samples and return them to Earth, the Perseverance rover mission marks an ambitious first step towards the same.
“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States, and space exploration globally — when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, so to speak, to rewrite the textbooks. The Mars 2020 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.”– Steve Jurczyk (Acting NASA Administrator)
Before it begins its two-year science investigation of Mars Jezero Crater, the 2,263-pound (1,026 kg) robotic geologist and astrobiologist, about the size of a car, will undergo several weeks of testing. A fundamental part of the rover’s mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life, it will also investigate the rock and sediment of Jezero’s ancient lakebed and river delta to characterize the region’s geology and past climate. The Mars Sample Return Campaign, being planned by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), will allow scientists on Earth to search for definite signs of past life by studying samples collected by Perseverance using instruments too large and complex to send to the Red Planet.
“Because of today’s exciting events, the first pristine samples from carefully documented locations on another planet are another step closer to being returned to Earth. Perseverance is the first step in bringing back rock and regolith from Mars. We don’t know what these pristine samples from Mars will tell us. But what they could tell us is monumental — including that life might have once existed beyond Earth.”– Thomas Zurbuchen (Associate Administrator for Science at NASA)
Jezero Crater, approx. 28 miles (45 km) wide, sits on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Around 3.5 billion years ago, the crater had its own river delta and was filled with water, as determined by scientists.
A Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG, is the power system that provides electricity and heat for Perseverance through its exploration of Jezero Crater. The MMRTG was provided to NASA by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through an ongoing partnership to develop power systems for civil space applications.
Perseverance rover, the first of its kind sent into space, equipped with seven primary science instruments, the most cameras ever sent to Mars, and its exquisitely complex sample caching system, to that end, the rover will scour the Jezero region for fossilized remains of ancient microscopic Martian life, taking samples along the way.
“Perseverance is the most sophisticated robotic geologist ever made, but verifying that microscopic life once existed carries an enormous burden of proof. While we’ll learn a lot with the great instruments we have aboard the rover, it may very well require the far more capable laboratories and instruments back here on Earth to tell us whether our samples carry evidence that Mars once harbored life.”– Lori Glaze (Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division)
Paving the Way for Human Missions
“Landing on Mars is always an incredibly difficult task and we are proud to continue building on our past success. But, while Perseverance advances that success, this rover is also blazing its own path and daring new challenges in the surface mission. We built the rover not just to land but to find and collect the best scientific samples for return to Earth, and its incredibly complex sampling system and autonomy not only enable that mission, they set the stage for future robotic and crewed missions.”– Michael Watkins (JPL Director)
The Terrain-Relative Navigation system autonomously guided the spacecraft during the final descent, and the Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrumentation 2 (MEDLI2) sensor suite collected data about Mars’ atmosphere during entry. The data from both are expected to help future human missions land on other worlds more safely and with larger payloads.
Perseverance’s science instruments will have an opportunity to scientifically shine on the surface of Mars. The SuperCam, located on the mast, uses a pulsed laser to study the chemistry of rocks and sediment and has its own microphone to help scientists better understand the property of the rocks, including their hardness. Mastcam-Z is a pair of zoomable science cameras on Perseverance’s remote sensing mast, or head, that creates high-resolution, color 3D panoramas of the Martian landscape.
The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) and the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instruments located on a turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm will work together to collect data on Mars’ geology close-up. PIXL will use an X-ray beam and suite of sensors to delve into a rock’s elemental chemistry. SHERLOC’s ultraviolet laser and spectrometer, along with its Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and engineering (WATSON) imager, will study rock surfaces, mapping out the presence of certain minerals and organic molecules, which are the carbon-based building blocks of life on Earth.
The rover chassis is home to three science instruments, as well. The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) is the first ground-penetrating radar on the surface of Mars and will be used to determine how different layers of the Martian surface formed over time. The data could help pave the way for future sensors that hunt for subsurface water ice deposits.
Also with an eye on future Red Planet explorations, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) technology demonstration will attempt to manufacture oxygen out of thin air — the Red Planet’s tenuous and mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere. The rover’s Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) instrument, which has sensors on the mast and chassis, will provide key information about present-day Mars weather, climate, and dust.
The diminutive Ingenuity Mars Helicopter currently attached to the belly of Perseverance is a technology demonstration that will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
Project engineers and scientists will now put Perseverance through its paces, testing every instrument, subsystem, and subroutine over the next month or two. Only then will they deploy the helicopter to the surface for the flight test phase. If successful, Ingenuity could add an aerial dimension to the exploration of the Red Planet in which such helicopters serve as scouts or make deliveries for future astronauts away from their base.
Once Ingenuity’s test flights are complete, the rover’s search for evidence of ancient microbial life will begin in earnest.
“Perseverance is more than a rover, and more than this amazing collection of men and women that built it and got us here. It is even more than the 10.9 million people who signed up to be part of our mission. This mission is about what humans can achieve when they persevere. We made it this far. Now, watch us go.”– John McNamee, project manager of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission at JPL
More About The Mission
A primary objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology research, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith, paving the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.
Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA, will send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.
JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission and the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter technology demonstration for NASA.