NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover successfully made a landing in the Jezero Crater on the red planet Mars on February 18, 2021, after travelling close to 300 million miles over the past seven months. Jezero Crater is the most challenging terrain on Mars, the US space agency NASA ever targeted.
What are the mission objectives?
What Perseverance gathers from this mission will likely define the next couple of decades of Mars exploration. This is because it is the most advanced, most expensive, and most sophisticated mobile laboratory sent to Mars. Perseverance is expected to provide significant insight on two important questions – one if Mars harboured or still harbours microscopic life and two if humans can inhabit the planet in the future.
What will Perseverance do?
Bring back samples: The mission is the first step in a multi-step project to bring samples back from Mars. The study of the returned rock samples in sophisticated laboratories all over the world will hopefully provide a decisive answer on whether life existed on Mars in the past. The reason behind selecting Jezero for collecting rocks is that scientists have identified this crater as an ancient lakebed, formed billions of years ago. The crater was filled with water forming a deep lake but it later dried up and surface water disappeared as the climate of Mars changed. Scientists believe that the rocks from the crater could provide evidence of life since it is a common phenomenon observed on Earth where evidence of life is often preserved in the mud and sand deposited at the bottom of the lake.
Finding oxygen and water: This is a non-human mission but for a human mission to Mars to materialise, the cost needs to be reasonable. For costs to be reasonable, there needs to be a technology and infrastructure in place to manufacture oxygen on Mars using raw materials available on Mars. Perseverance has an instrument, MOXIE that will use power to produce oxygen using atmospheric carbon dioxide on Mars. If the experiment is successful, MOXIE can be scaled up to provide the two very critical needs of humans to survive on the planet: oxygen for breathing, and rocket fuel for the trip back to Earth. Apart from this, Perseverance will also look for subsurface water on Mars.
Test for flying helicopter on Mars: The mission will test whether the Ingenuity helicopter, the first-ever helicopter sent to space by NASA, can fly in the sparse atmosphere on Mars. The helicopter is attached to the belly of the rover and will remain attached for some time before it detaches and makes its maiden flight assuming it survives the brutal overnight temperatures.
Mission name: Mars 2020
Conducted by: US space agency NASA
Spacecraft: Rover Perseverance with small robotic helicopter Ingenuity
Launch date: July 30, 2020
Landing date: Feb 18, 2021
Landing site: Jezero Crater, Mars
Length of stay: At least one Mars year (about 687 days on Earth)
Dr. Swati Mohan, an Indian-American scientist, played a key role in the mission and was the first to confirm Perseverance’s landing on Mars. She moved to the US when she was a year old. She is the guidance and controls operations lead for the mission, acting as the “eyes and ears” for NASA’s most sophisticated spacecraft to date.
Why are scientists so fascinated by Mars?
Mars is a planet where scientists believe that life may have evolved in the past. It is thought that conditions on early Mars roughly around 4 billion years ago (when life evolved on Earth) were very similar to that of Earth. It had a thick atmosphere, which enabled the stability of water on the surface of Mars. Also, Mars is the only planet that humans can visit or inhabit in the long term. Venus and Mercury have extreme temperatures – the average temperature is greater than 400 degrees C, or hotter than a cooking oven. All planets in the outer solar system starting with Jupiter are made of gas – not silicates or rocks – and are very cold. Mars is comparatively hospitable in terms of temperature, with an approximate range between 20 degrees C at the Equator to minus 125 degrees C at the poles.