A new rover has landed in Jezero Crater on Mars as part of the Mars 2020 mission.
The rover, named “Perseverance,” is on a mission to gain information about the geology of Mars, and look for signs of ancient Martian life, according to NASA. To do this, Perseverance will collect and store rock and soil samples with the goal of returning the samples to Earth for study.
The name Perseverance was selected through a K-12 essay contest, which was won by a 7th grader from Virginia.
The decision to choose this name came from a recognition of both the challenges of getting a rover to Mars safely, but also the turmoil occurring back on Earth.
NASA installed a plaque on the side of the rover to commemorate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and as a tribute to the perseverance of healthcare workers.
The Jezero Crater landing site for Perseverance was specially selected to find signs of ancient life on Mars. According to NASA, the site was once a river delta flowing into a large lake around 3.5 billion years ago.
The belief in the possibility of ancient life on Mars stems from previous orbital and landed explorations of the planet, and evidence that wet conditions existed long enough for microbial life to develop.
Additionally, scientists will be using data collected from Perseverance to try to understand what turned Mars from a wet planet to a dry, rocky one, and why Mars and Earth are so different from each other, despite similarities like the presence of water and protective magnetic fields.
The landing itself, which was recorded on video by onboard cameras, happened on the most challenging terrain of any previous attempted landing, according to NASA. It was also unprecedented in that the rover used new landing technology that included not only radar — which has been used in previous missions — but also the Lander Vision System, which actively pinged the ground as the rover approached the Martian surface.
Only about 50% of Martian landing attempts by any agency have been successful, according to NASA.
NASA made use of eight retrorockets to ensure a soft landing. A retrorocket is an auxiliary rocket which is fired in the direction of travel to slow a spacecraft down as it approaches.
When the rockets turned on, the rover was traveling 190 miles per hour at 6,900 feet above the ground, and reduced speed to 1.7 miles per hour by the time the rover was about 66 feet from the surface.
In terms of timeline, Perseverance will explore the landing site region for one year on Mars, which is equivalent to two years on Earth.
According to NASA, after mission controllers have determined the stability of the rover systems, Perseverance will find a flat spot and serve as a helipad for the “Ingenuity Mars Helicopter” which will attempt up to five test flights for up to 30 sols (almost 31 Earth days).
The Ingenuity Helicopter’s mission is an experimental one, with the main goal being to demonstrate that flight is possible in the thin atmosphere and harsh conditions of Mars.
To accomplish this feat, the helicopter was designed with much larger and faster moving rotors. Additionally, the effect of gravity on Mars is about one third the intensity of Earth, which will help Ingenuity fly. While Ingenuity weighs 4 pounds on Earth, it will just weigh 1.5 pounds on Mars.
To get to Mars, Ingenuity hitched a ride on the belly of Perseverance, and Ingenuity is highly dependent on Perseverance for communication with the home planet.
Because of delays in communications, Ingenuity will not be able to be directly controlled from Earth. Instead, the helicopter is programmed to sense terrain and temperatures so engineers can evaluate flights after they happen on Mars.
While Ingenuity will be powered by battery, Perseverance will be powered by the heat produced by the decay of plutonium-238. The system to make this happen is known as a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, which was developed especially for space missions, according to NASA.
This system of producing power has been used since the beginning of space exploration in the 1960s, and aided in previous missions to the Moon, Mars, Pluto and the distant Kuiper Belt.
Perseverance is also loaded with advanced technology that makes this rover a significant improvement over past rovers.
There is an autopilot feature that allows Perseverance to navigate faster and avoid hazards more effectively in addition to advanced cameras, an X-Ray fluorescence spectrometer, a device designed to produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide and ground penetrating radar to understand subsurface geology.
The Mars mission has also been done with the goal of establishing the ability for future human missions to the Red Planet.
Along with the experimental technology that can produce oxygen, the technology which improves Percerverence’s ability to more quickly and safely travel may be used on human missions to the Moon and — one day — Mars, according to NASA.