NASA’s Perseverance rover set to land on Mars on Feb. 18


Zach Gilbert

As NASA prepares for the Perseverance rover to land on Mars next month, many have high hopes for what a successful mission may mean for further human exploration of the Red Planet. Photo courtesy of NASA.

After being launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on July 30, 2020 as a part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, the Perseverance rover will officially land on the Red Planet on Feb. 18.

“Perseverance is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to Mars, with a name that embodies NASA’s passion for taking on and overcoming challenges,” NASA stated in a press release. “It will search for signs of ancient microbial life, characterize the planet’s geology and climate, collect carefully selected and documented rock and sediment samples for possible return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration beyond the moon.”

Built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Perseverance is the largest and heaviest robotic Mars rover that NASA has ever built, and it comes with innovative scientific instruments, advanced computational capabilities for landing and other new systems.

The Perseverance project was formally announced in December 2012, but development was more intense than initially expected. In addition, as the team prepped for the launch during spring and summer 2020, the coronavirus pandemic presented even more issues.

Thankfully, the team was able to pull through and “persevere,” successfully sending the rover off to Mars in July and living up to the name chosen by Alex Mather of Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia, who won NASA’s “Name the Rover” contest.

“We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars,” Mather wrote. “However, we can persevere. We, not as a nation, but as humans, will not give up.”

Perseverance will land on the Jezero Crater on Mars, a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Because the crater was an oasis at one point, NASA believes this river delta could have “collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life,” and Perseverance will be tasked with acquiring rock and soil samples.

“Understanding Mars’ past climate conditions and reading the geological history embedded in its rocks will give scientists a richer sense of what the planet was like in its distant past,” NASA said. “Studying the Red Planet’s geology and climate could also give us a sense of why Earth and Mars ended up so different.”

In 2026, NASA will launch a “fetch rover” to retrieve the rock and soil samples that Perseverance collects so that they can be investigated on Earth with instruments that are too large and complex to send to Mars.

Finally, Perseverance is equipped with multiple future-looking technologies that will hopefully help to benefit eventual human exploration of the Red Planet.

First, Terrain-Relative Navigation will “enable the rover to quickly and autonomously comprehend its location over the Martian surface and modify its trajectory during descent.” This system is essential to crewed landing on Mars.

Additionally, a proof-of-concept experiment called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) – which “produces oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere” and “demonstrates a way that future explorers might produce oxygen for [either] rocket propellant [or] for breathing” – will be tested throughout Perseverance’s mission.

“As humans prepare for the greatest adventure here in human exploration of Mars, our robots can help,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, earlier this summer.