Perseverance is a rover — a self-running exploratory vehicle — that’s now on Mars! It was launched from Earth on July 30, 2020, and landed on Mars on February 18, 2021. Perseverance is run by NASA and was made by Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It’s part of the Mars 2020 Project, which is aimed at exploring this nearby planet. Specifically, Perseverance is designed to take rock and soil samples so that scientists can learn more about the red planet. At the same time, Perseverance is scouting for any sign of ancient microbial lifeforms while exploring the Martian geography. With the rock/soil samples, Perseverance will hold them so that a future mission might bring them to Earth to be studied further. The rover has an autopilot and advanced sensors; these may be extremely useful in the future during manned missions.
Perseverance is also known as the ‘Mars 2020’ rover; a rover is a robotic vehicle. This isn’t the first Martian rover; NASA has sent four to the red planet before: Sojourner in 1997, the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2004, and Curiosity in 2012. Rovers are a bit like scouts; they are early exploratory machines on Mars. Perseverance itself weighs 2300 pounds and landed on Mars in the Jezero Crater. The landing itself was auspicious, as only around half of the attempted landings on Mars have been successful.
Perseverance will spend two Earth years (or one Martian year) driving around the landing site before it will venture further away. This area has been photographed from orbit above Mars, but that was from 200 miles above the surface! A rover offers the opportunity to get a “hands-on” view of what’s actually on Mars.
In Search of Life
The Jezero Crater used to have flowing river water in it leading to a lake–though it was 3.5 billion years ago that the water was there! In fact, the crater was maybe once filled with water and still has clay deposits in it. ‘Jezero’ itself means ‘lake’ in many Slavic languages. (The ‘J’ is pronounced like a ‘Y’, and the accent is on the first syllable: YEH-zeh-ro.)
Mars is cold. Extremely cold — it averages about -80 degrees Fahrenheit. But it’s thought that it might have been warmer in the ancient past, as there are remnants of lakes and river deltas across the planet. Though the bodies of water may be long gone, there are still ice caps on Mars’ north and south poles. Water may host life, so scientists wonder if Mars ever harbored living things. There’s hope that signs of water or ancient organic life remain, which Perseverance might find. To be clear: we aren’t talking about actual water or animals here. NASA hopes that molecules, bacteria, or other microscopic signs remain.
How It’s Powered
An interesting fact is that Perseverance is using nuclear power to travel around on Mars! Its Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) contains plutonium-238, which is radioactive and naturally decays. As it decays it releases heat, which is used to produce electricity and allow Perseverance to run. The rover Curiosity had the same system. This avoids using a battery, which could only supply power for much less time.
There’s also a small helicopter drone on board Perseverance, named Ingenuity. This will be the first powered flight on Mars! Unlike Perseverance, Ingenuity is powered by solar panels and batteries. It’s very small, about 4 feet wide and weighing only 1.5 pounds on Mars (4 pounds on Earth). The helicopter can be launched to fly for around 20 to 90 seconds, 10-15 feet in the air, so it will typically travel in a series of hops. This is a potentially huge step in Mars missions. Mars has a much thinner atmosphere than Earth, so being able to test these flights is important.
Perseverance is also carrying some notes from Earth. The mission was launched during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, and carries a plaque that commemorates the healthcare workers who battled COVID (literally celebrating their ‘perseverance’). Another plaque holds three microchips, onto which the names of 10.9 million people have been stenciled. These people signed up for the ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ campaign.
The rover also has 19 cameras plus microphones on board; the Martian footage will be posted on NASA’s website.
Put together, this unmanned mission still feels pretty human.
What Comes Next
So, what happens after this rover? Perseverance will be collecting rock core samples and carefully storing them. Astronauts going to Mars in the future could pick up these samples and bring them back to Earth, leading to even further understanding of Martian geology. Let’s hope for future manned Mars missions!