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(Almost) Everything to know about NASA’s new mission to Mars

Perseverance will look for signs of ancient life in former Martian lake bed

With NASA on the precipice of its 11th robotic mission to Mars, there are a whole new set of expectations for the rover on its seven-month journey to the red planet.

The mission known as Mars 2020 is comprised of a rover nicknamed Perseverance and a small helicopter nicknamed Ingenuity. Both are packing new science instruments and goals to study Mars.

ULA launched the Mars mission on July 30 from Cape Canaveral, sending the robotic pair on its seven-month journey to the red planet.

There is a lot of information to unpack for Mars 2020 from the technology to the science. To guide you through the most important elements of the mission, here’s a rundown of the most fascinating parts.

New mission, new rover

Click on the graphic above to learn about all of the features on the rover.

Perseverance may look like NASA’s current rover on the red planet, Curiosity, but the two are far from the same robot.

What NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory learned from Curiosity’s ongoing mission was used to create a souped-up new rover that could last through Martian weather and terrain. The assembly of the rover began at JPL in 2016 and finished late last year.

For example, Perseverance is sporting a whole new wheel design and has 23 cameras, most provide color images.

After seeing the wear on Curiosity’s wheels in the past eight years and with no AAA on the red planet, Mars 2020 deputy project scientist Katie Morgan said engineers went back to the drawing board.

Morgan said Curiosity’s wheels actually had holes in them intentionally that spelled JPL in Morse code, which was to help the rover’s cameras detect wheel tracks.

"Our cameras on this rover are so much better that we don't need to do that anymore," Morgan said.

For Perseverance, the team at JPL designed "very, very robust wheels" with a different design, said Morgan, and then put them through all kinds of testing. So much testing, "we had to come up with a new definition of what a scratch was, because these wheels didn't have any after they went through all the testing that Curiosity's wheels have gone through," Morgan said.

The helicopter

Functional testing of NASA’s Mars Helicopter and its cruise stage occurred in the airlock inside Kennedy Space Center’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on March 10, 2020.
Functional testing of NASA’s Mars Helicopter and its cruise stage occurred in the airlock inside Kennedy Space Center’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on March 10, 2020. (For copyright and restrictions, refer to http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/guidelines/index.html)

Nicknamed Ingenuity, a small helicopter weighing about 4 pounds is strapped to the belly of the rover. The little chopper will be the first to fly on Mars, hopefully proving aircraft can fly in the Martian environment.

The helicopter won’t be performing science like Perseverance because the vehicle is an experiment on its own. The Martian atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth’s and it can be below 130 degrees in the Jezero Crater of Mars where the pair are expected to land.

It will be impressive if the solar-powered helicopter survives the journey to Mars and safely deploys from the rover’s underbelly.

If Ingenuity survives its first flight on Mars, the NASA team will attempt additional flights.

Landing in an ancient lake bed

The spacecraft is expected to touch down in the Jezero Crater seven months after launch sometime in February 2021.

The spot was selected because it’s thought to be one of the best places to look for signs of ancient life, which is what Perseverance is trying to find. The 28-mile crater was once the site of a lake more than 3.5 billion years ago and home to an ancient river delta, according to NASA.

The rover will take samples to send back to Earth but also use its instruments to look at the crater floor for carbonates that could provide clues as to how Mars was once a water-filled planet like Earth to the dry desert it is now.

Souped-up science

The other difference between Curiosity and Mars 2020 is that technology tested on this mission will serve as a proving ground for human missions, according to Art Thompson, deputy manager of assembly, test and launch operations for Mars 2020.

An instrument on the rover called MOXIE that will ingest Mars atmospheric carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

“It will prove that it is a feasible thing to do, which will pave the way for future human missions,” Thompson said.

The new rover has a suite of other instruments to conduct science operations on the red planet, including an ultraviolet spectrometer and camera known as SHERLOC and WATSON.

SHERLOC, which stands for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals will use an ultraviolet laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds, helping in the search for signs of microbial life.

SHERLOC will also be looking at some material coming with the rover to Mars, including materials NASA hopes to use for spacesuits on the red planet. The pieces of spacesuit material, including polycarbonate used for space helmet visors, will be be monitored for how well they hold up on Mars.

Recording the sounds of Mars for the first time

Two microphones are onboard the Mars 2020 rover. (Image: NASA)
Two microphones are onboard the Mars 2020 rover. (Image: NASA) (NASA 2020)

When you think of the sounds of Earth, the first word that comes to mind is probably noisy. On the red planet, which as far as we know is occupied by a few robots, what do you think it will sound like with no traffic or people? NASA is about to find out. Perseverance is carrying with it two microphones to capture the first sounds of the red planet.

One microphone will record sounds during the landing on Mars, including dust noises from the thrusters as the rover sets down. It’s likely this microphone won’t survive beyond the landing but if it does it could also record the sounds of Martian winds and rover driving.

The second microphone is mounted to the SuperCam, which looks like the rover’s head. This mic will record the sounds of the SuperCam laser as it hits rocks to identify minerals on the red planet. It will also hear wind and rover noises, according to NASA.

Sample return: An interplanetary treasure hunt

ESA's rendering of how the agency plans to collect samples from NASA's mars rover. (Image: ESA)
ESA's rendering of how the agency plans to collect samples from NASA's mars rover. (Image: ESA) (WKMG 2020)

NASA will partner with the European Space Agency to bring the samples collected by Perseverance and send them back to Earth by 2030.

The plan is complicated and maybe one of the most ambitious yet. It requires three rocket launches, another rover, a Mars lander, a Mars ascent vehicle and an orbiter spacecraft, all to be designed and managed by the ESA.

Here’s how the sample collection will play out: The ESA rover will go and collect the samples from Perseverance, then bring the samples back to the lander where the ascent vehicle will be waiting. The vehicle will launch the samples to Mars orbit where an ESA orbiter will be waiting to capture the sample canisters and bringing them back to Earth.

The ESA likens the plan to an interplanetary treasure hunt.

Perseverance has a two-year mission on Mars, which will likely be extended for more time to allow for the sample collection missions.

Once the samples make it back to Earth, they will be analyzed similar to the moon samples brought back during the Apollo missions.

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