Mars Perseverance rover far more advanced than its predecessors
It's been 23 years since NASA sent its first Mars rover to the red planet.
Called Sojourner, the rover was part of NASA's Mars Pathfinder mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 1996 and landed on the Martian surface the following year.
Since then, NASA has sent three other rovers to study the Martian terrain: Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity.
On July 30, one more will be sent out. It's name? Perseverance.
Scheduled to launch atop United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket no earlier than 7:50 a.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 41, the rover will head on a six-month journey to the red planet.
But this new, more advanced rover is unlike any other previously sent to Mars.
Here's how Perseverance is different from NASA's past Mars rovers:
First 'sample-return' mission
Perseverance's mission marks the first time NASA will attempt to collect Martian rock samples and bring them back to Earth.
Throughout its mission, Perseverance will seek signs that there was once living organisms on Mars, but the only way to confirm there was indeed life on Mars is to bring back those Martian rock samples to Earth for scientists to study.
That won't happen for years, though. The mission to go collect those samples is currently slated to launch no earlier than 2026.
"We'll send Perseverance to Mars to collect and cache the samples and we'll store them in very clean protective tubes and either leave them on the surface of Mars or carry them within the rover for potential delivery to the next leg of sample return, which would be the sample return lander, which would theoretically pick them up and put them back into orbit and start them on their way back to Earth," said Katie Stack Morgan, NASA's deputy project scientist for Mars Perseverance at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
The entire mission is expected to last approximately 10 years, from the time Perseverance launches to when the samples are returned to Earth.
First rover to hear sound on Mars
Perseverance will also attempt to record the first sound heard on Mars.
There have been three other Mars missions that have attempted to record sound on Mars, but none succeeded.
The first spacecraft to attempt to bring a microphone to Mars was NASA's Polar Lander in 1999. Unfortunately, however, the spacecraft crashed during its descent onto the Martian surface.
The next attempt to hear sound on Mars was through the French space agency's Netlander mission, which aimed to study Mars’ atmosphere, surface, and interior. The mission was canceled due to funding, however.
NASA once again attempted to use a microphone for one of its Mars mission — the Phoenix lander — but just before launch, engineers detected a potential electronics problem in the microphone that might affect other systems, and it was therefore deactivated.
Now, Perseverance will be the fourth attempt to hear sound on Mars.
Housing two microphones, the rover will first attempt to record its sound as it descends through the Martian atmosphere for landing, and the other microphone will record sounds as the rover does its scientific work in Jezero Crater — an ancient river delta where life may have flourished.
First to collect rock samples
Unlike NASA's Curiosity rover, which drills Martian rock samples into a fine powder to be analyzed, Perseverance will attempt to preserve the Martian samples.
"For Perseverance, since we're part of Mars sample return, it's our job to identify samples and then preserve them and protect them. And so when we drill, our objective isn't to create a fine powder but it's to ... not destroy it at all but make sure that it's preserved still as a rock," Morgan told FLORIDA TODAY. "We don't analyze that particular rock sample, but we'll analyze the rocks around it, we may analyze the drill hole, but otherwise, that sample gets preserved in that tube with hopes that that will come back to Earth."
First to actively seek out past alien life
NASA's past four rover missions have all had a specific objective, and though they all contributed to getting one step closer in finding out if there was once life on Mars, only Perseverance will actively search for it.
For instance, Sojourner's main objective was to test out the roving capabilities on the Martian surface since it was the first rover to be sent to Mars. Spirit and Opportunity's goal was to find evidence of water on Mars.
Curiosity, meanwhile, continues to attempt to find out if Mars had all the necessary ingredients to host life, meaning lasting water and the right chemical ingredients.
With all the information acquired from those earlier rovers, Perseverance will now get the opportunity to search for signs of past and present life on Mars, as well as bringing NASA one step closer to sending humans to Mars.
"Our main scientific objective is to seek for signs of ancient life on Mars and so we are looking for what's called biosignatures which are textures and patterns that could have only been formed by life," Morgan said. "We're really trying to hit this kind of the question of, 'Was there life on Mars at one time in the past? We have a suite of instruments, some of them are new, some of them are updated from instruments that flew on Curiosity, that I think probably prepare this rover for tackling that question better than previous rovers have."
Most advanced mission
Perseverance will set the stage for a lot of firsts for NASA.
Aside from being the first leg of a sample-return mission on Mars and the first to potentially hear sound on the red planet, Perseverance will also bring a companion on its journey: the Ingenuity helicopter.
Ingenuity will attempt to be the first helicopter to fly on Mars.
"It's not easy to build a rotorcraft to fly on Mars. The atmosphere is really thin. I mean compared to Earth, it's about 1%. So a vehicle to fly on Mars has to be really light and it has to spin really fast," said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity helicopter project manager at NASA's JPL during a Monday media teleconference.
As a result, Ingenuity is only about four feet in diameter and weighs approximately four pounds.
"So to build this vehicle that weighs about four pounds while having the capability to fly and land autonomously and to survive and operate autonomously on Mars, remotely operated from Earth, that's a huge challenge. It's the tiny package with tons of capability packed," Aung said.
The rover will also be the first to have a zoom capability on its cameras.
"This is the first time that we'll have a zoom lens cameras on Mars. We've had stereo cameras in the past but they've been a lower resolution or just a fixed view that is not zoomable. The cameras on Curiosity have two cameras that have one of its eyes being a wide-angle camera and the other of its eyes is a telephoto camera," said Jim Bell, principal investigator of the Mars 2020 Mastcam-Z Investigation.
"But with the new zoom cameras, we can go from wide-angle ... all the way to telephoto and match the two eyes the whole way. And so we'll be doing a lot more 3D imaging for science and to support rover operations than previous missions."
Contact Antonia Jaramillo at 321-242-3668 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AntoniaJ_11.
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