NASA's next Mars rover is in the home stretch now.
The launch of NASA's Mars rover Perseverance, the life-hunting, sample-caching Red Planet explorer, is just a month away. The car-size robot is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during a window that runs from July 20 through Aug. 11.
Getting to this point has not been easy. Mission teams have had to prep the rover and rocket for liftoff while the coronavirus pandemic swirled around them, forcing the closure of many NASA facilities. But the space agency prioritized getting Perseverance to the pad on time (while protecting workers' safety as well), given that Mars-mission launch windows open just once every 26 months.
"If we have to take Perseverance and put it back into storage for a period of two years, it could cost half a billion dollars," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a news conference last Wednesday (June 17).
That would be on top of the $2.7 billion total price tag for Perseverance's mission, which is called Mars 2020.
Whenever the six-wheeled rover lifts off during the coming window, it will land on Feb. 18, 2021, inside the Red Planet's 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater. Jezero harbored a lake and river delta billions of years ago, and Perseverance will use its seven science instruments to characterize that potentially habitable ancient environment and look for evidence of long-dead Mars life, among other things.
No robot has hunted for signs of life on the Martian surface since NASA's twin Viking landers, which touched down in the mid-1970s to look for extant organisms.
But, as the Vikings' ambiguous results show, making a definitive detection of alien life is a tall order for a lonely robot on a faraway world. So, Perseverance will also collect and cache several dozen pristine samples, which will be brought to Earth by a joint NASA/European Space Agency effort in 2031, if current plans hold.
"On the Perseverance side, we see it as our job to identify potential biosignatures — things that are worthy of additional study here on Earth, with the full arsenal of analytical capabilities that we have here in our own laboratories," Mars 2020 deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said during Wednesday's news conference. "I think that's how we're going to approach that question of the surface of Mars."
Perseverance will also test out tech for future exploration efforts. For example, one of the rover's instruments will generate oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is thin and dominated by carbon dioxide. Such tech could help human pioneers live and work on the Red Planet someday, NASA officials have said.
The Mars 2020 mission also features a tiny helicopter named Ingenuity, which will travel to the Red Planet on Perseverance's belly. Ingenuity will make a few short test flights in the Martian sky, potentially paving the way for future rotorcraft that could serve as rover scouts and/or gather lots of data on their own.
"Getting it to Mars, getting it safely off the vehicle — we're going to learn a lot," Mars 2020 deputy project manager Matt Wallace said of Ingenuity. "We are not looking for an extensive and ambitious return from this technology; we're looking to learn those first few things that we need to learn."
The nuclear-powered Perseverance is also outfitted with 23 cameras and two microphones. If all goes according to plan, the mission will capture high-definition video of Perseverance's dramatic sky-crane landing and record the sounds of the Martian surface. Both types of data collection would be unprecedented.
"Perseverance is the most sophisticated mission we've ever sent to the Red Planet's surface," said Lori Glaze, the director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.
Two other NASA robots are active on the Martian surface at the moment: the InSight Mars lander, which has been monitoring marsquakes since its November 2018 touchdown, and the Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the 96-mile-wide (154 km) Gale Crater since August 2012.
Curiosity is Perseverance's forebear in multiple ways. Perseverance's chassis is based heavily on that of the older rover, which also pioneered the sky-crane landing strategy that Mars 2020 will employ. And Curiosity has determined that at least some parts of Mars were capable of supporting Earth-like life in the ancient past, paving the way for Perseverance to take the next step and hunt for signs of native Martian organisms.
- Mars 2020: The Red Planet's next rover
- Meet 'Perseverance': NASA's Mars 2020 rover has a new name
- 2020 Mars Helicopter could open alien skies to exploration
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.