The U.S. Postal Service plans to mark NASA's next landing on Mars later this week, if indeed the agency's Perseverance rover makes it safely down to the surface of the Red Planet.
A special pictorial postmark has been designed to commemorate the touch down of the fifth U.S. wheeled robotic explorer on Mars. Perseverance is set to land in Jezero Crater on Thursday (Feb. 18), beginning NASA's first mission dedicated to searching for and caching signs of life for a future return to Earth.
The ink postmark will be applied by request to stamped envelopes, dating them for the Mars landing to create both a record of and a memento of the achievement.
That is, if the mission is successful.
NASA's Perseverance Mars rover landing: Everything you need to know
Before the car-sized Perseverance can begin roving on the site of an ancient Martian river basin, it first must go through what mission engineers have described as the "seven minutes of terror." Not only is Jezero Crater considered the most challenging terrain targeted by a spacecraft for a landing on Mars, the rover must survive entry into the Martian atmosphere, deploy a parachute and dispose of its aeroshell, separate from its backshell and ignite thrusters, hover over the surface and then lower safely to the ground using a "sky crane."
And it has to do all of that under complete autonomous control, receiving no input from mission managers on Earth.
If Perseverance does survive, confirmation will come at or about 3:55 p.m. EST (2055 GMT) on Thursday. Because of the distance that the signal has to travel from Mars to Earth, the actual landing on Mars will have taken place 11 minutes and 22 seconds before it is known to have succeeded here.
Related: The boldest Mars missions in history
Upon learning that the rover is six-wheels down on the surface, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will proceed with manufacturing the commemorative cancellation device. If the landing does not go as planned and Perseverance is confirmed lost, then the USPS will not go forward with the pictorial postmark, per an agreement with NASA that dates back more than 20 years to the loss of another Mars lander.
The postmark, designed by artist Detlev van Ravenswaay of Bonn, Germany and coordinated by philatelist Stephen Stein, features the Perseverance rover and its experimental helicopter "Ingenuity" on the surface of Mars. The device is inscribed "Perseverance on Mars Station" and is dated "Feb. 18, 2021," with the location "Pasadena, CA 91109," the latter in reference to the post office nearest to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), from where the Mars mission is being managed.
Van Ravenswaay and Stein also coordinated with the USPS to prepare a pictorial postmark for the launch of Perseverance from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (not Space Force Station) in Florida in July 2020.
Stamp and space memorabilia collectors often seek to have stamped envelopes postmarked at relevant post offices on dates associated with milestone events. These "covers," as they are called, document when and where history was made and serve as a memento of the occasion.
Collectors and members of the public desiring the Perseverance landing pictorial postmark can begin preparing now by affixing the proper postage in stamps on a self-addressed envelope (or addressed to others of their choice) and then placed into a larger envelope addressed to:
Perseverance on Mars Station
600 Lincoln Avenue
Pasadena, California 91109-9998
The USPS recommends inserting a card of postcard thickness into the envelope to be postmarked for sturdiness and then tuck in the flap.
"Customers can also send stamped envelopes and postcards without addresses for postmark, as long as they supply a larger envelope with adequate postage and their return address. After applying the pictorial postmark, the Postal Service returns the items (with or without addresses) under addressed protective cover," the USPS instructs on its website.
Requests can be sent and an official notice will be published in the USPS's Postal Bulletin after NASA confirms Perseverance has successfully landed on Mars. The The USPS will honor requests for the pictorial postmark for (at least) 30 days after the touchdown.
The USPS is not the only organization marking the arrival of a spacecraft at Mars with a special ink stamp.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) Government Media Office in collaboration with Dubai Airports recently announced that in celebration of the country's first interplanetary probe, "Hope," entering orbit around the Red Planet on Feb. 9, a special "Martian Ink" stamp will be applied to visitors' passports. The ink was made from the same type of volcanic basalt rocks that produces Mars' distinctive rusty color.