The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover.
Image: NASA

On July 20, 1976, Viking 1 took the first photo ever snapped on the Martian surface. In the ensuing decades, a number of orbiting and roving craft have given mankind an unprecedented glimpse of the Red Planet in stunning detail. This includes surreal Martian sunsets, dust devils in action, and even the occasional robotic selfie. This fleet of advanced craft have also collected key information detailing the planet’s ancient past and its current composition.

SEE: Key details: NASA’s mission to Mars (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

In the next few weeks, NASA will be launching the Mars 2020 Mission to the Red Planet with the Perseverance rover in tow. The mission will build on the foundation laid by its predecessors with a robotic eye toward future human Martian exploration.

Landing on Mars

The Mars 2020 Mission’s three-week launch window opens on July 30 and lasts through Aug. 15. If all goes as planned, the rover is scheduled to land on the Red Planet “a little after 3:40 p.m.” on Feb. 18, 2021. Before Perseverance can begin roving the Red Planet, it will of course need to land safely on the Martian surface. A task rife with no shortage of challenges.

After millions of miles of spacefaring, the craft will enter Mars’ atmosphere traveling at more than 12,000 miles per hour. Mars has an exceptionally thin atmosphere that is approximately 100 times thinner than Earth’s. This presents a host of difficulties when it comes to slowing down the craft enough to enable a safe landing.

To accomplish this feat, the Mars 2020 spacecraft will leverage a specially designed parachute and a descent vehicle for landing. This mission will also feature the debut of the Terrain-Relative Navigation. This system is engineered to pinpoint and avoid potentially hazardous terrain as the craft makes its descent through the Red Planet’s atmosphere. The last leg of this descent utilizes an approach technique known as the “skycrane maneuver,” where the rover is gently lowering the craft to the Martian surface via a tether.

Image: NASA

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The Perseverance Rover and its predecessors

In 1997, Sojourner became the first NASA rover to cruise across Mars. In the years since this pioneering mission, a host of other more sophisticated craft have roved the Red Planet. The twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 (the latter being the first to infamous complete the first Martian Marathon by traveling more than 26.219 miles over the course of more than 11 years). Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012 and continues to provide NASA with invaluable data to this day. In 2018, the hearty craft infamously endured a massive global dust storm before returning to normal operations.

The Mars 2020 rover is the culmination of previous rover research and development. Overall, Perseverance’s design is based predominantly on the configuration of the Mars Curiosity rover. Although, the Mars 2020 rover features “a new, more capable wheel design, among other improvements,” per NASA. The Mars 2020 rover is “car-sized,” standing 7-feet tall, approximately 10-feet in total length, 9-feet wide, and weighs more than 2,200 pounds.

SEE: Photos: NASA’s latest Mars rover, Perseverance, is headed to the Red Planet (TechRepublic)

The Mars 2020 rover has six aluminum wheels (three to a side) with cleats and small titanium spokes for enhanced traction and each wheel touts an individual motor. While roving the rocky landscape, Perseverance is capable of rolling over rocks up to nearly 16-inches tall. On a flat, hard surface area, the rover can reach a top speed of about 4.2-centimeters per second. This slow and steady pace is designed with energy efficiency in mind. Speed isn’t everything, after all. As NASA points out, “it’s about the journey and the destinations along the way.”

The Mars Helicopter hitches a ride aboard Perseverance

The Mars 2020 mission will also feature the debut of the Martian helicopter, officially known as Ingenuity. The Mars helicopter weighs just under four pounds and will be strapped to the Perseverance rover’s underside during launch and landing.

The small craft featuring two rotors has been engineered to fly through the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere. NASA plans to fly the craft in short bursts; up to 90 seconds at a time. The helicopter will fly between 10 to 15 feet above the ground and traverse nearly 980 feet during these intermittent flights.

NASA hopes the Mars helicopter will provide the agency with a new perspective of the area’s geology. The craft will also be able to observe areas the rover is not able to navigate such as steeper terrain. On future manned missions to Mars, next-generation helicopters could aid astronauts in the exploration process.

Image: NASA

The search for microbial life continues

Perseverance will build on the legacy and insights gained in previous missions to Mars. Spirit and Opportunity were the first rovers to detect evidence that Mars once had running water. Later, the Curiosity rover discovered the conditions “that could have supported microbial life,” while roving the Gale Crater. The Mars 2020 rover takes the next step, building on the research and findings of these previous missions.

Perseverance is pegged to land in an area with a “high potential” for detecting evidence of ancient microbial life—the Jezero Crater. Billions of years ago, “a river flowed into a body of water the size of Lake Tahoe” at the Jezero site, according to NASA.

“The science team has had many discussions internally and externally about where the next Mars rover should go,” said Ken Farley, a mission project scientist. “We ultimately chose Jezero Crater because it is such a promising location for finding organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life.”

The Perseverance rover touts an onboard drill capable of collecting core samples from soil and rocks across the Martian surface. This drilling capacity is a first for Martian rovers. Once collected, the samples are then stored in tubes for preservation as part of a technique NASA is calling “depot caching.”

SEE: NASA: Landing on Mars, working from home. Perseverance all-around (TechRepublic)

A future Mars Sample Return currently under development could then return these samples to Earth for more sophisticated analysis than is currently possible on the Red Planet. These samples would be used to better understand the potential evidence of life on Mars. While we may need to wait a bit to reap the scientific benefits of these caches, there are other onboard instruments to provide more immediate information in the interim.

Instrumentation with human exploration in mind

Perseverance will attempt to gain a better understanding of the Red Planet’s ancient past, but also gain insights to help scientists plan for future human exploration missions. For example, the rover packs instrumentation engineered to extract oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere. Other instrumentation will be used to detect potential subsurface water resources.

If the onboard technology is able to demonstrate this capability, this will help the agency determine ways to leverage the natural resources on Mars to create human life support systems. These systems will be crucial components of any manned mission to Mars.

NASA illustration featuring a future human habitat on Mars.
Image: NASA

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Mars 2020 Mission timeline

The Mars 2020 mission has a duration of approximately 687 Earth days, the equivalent of one full Martian year. Although previous Mars missions have infamously far-exceeded their planned mission lifetimes. Opportunity was originally scheduled for a 90-day mission and proceeded to operate on Mars for almost 15 years. Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012 and its prime mission “lasted one Mars year” (approximately 23 months on Earth). The rover continues to rove the Red Planet to this day.