Perseverance is scheduled to become the latest rover to descend upon the Martian surface; proudly following in the tracks of Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and the creatively named “Mars” series of Soviet landers. This marks NASA’s first venture back to the red planet in almost nine years. Since then, much has changed in the way of technology and many scientists are eager to find out just what Perseverance may discover.
So what has changed?
As well as being given the best self-driving technology NASA has to offer, Perseverance will also contain an experimental autonomous helicopter known as “Ingenuity.” A groundbreaking device, should it be successful, Ingenuity will be the first drone to take off on another world. It features four carbon fibre blades arranged to create two 1.2 metre long rotors spinning at 2400 rpm in opposing directions. It weighs around 1.8 kilograms in total, and is capable of flying at around 10 metres per second (or just over 22 miles per hour). The ultimate goal of Ingenuity is to help plot a course for the rover along the Jezero crater. The project mirrors that of the Dragonfly rotorcraft, expected to land on Saturn’s largest moon Titan in 2036.
Two microphones have been installed on the rover, allowing sounds from Mars to be transmitted back to Earth. Some of NASA’s previous landers (Polar and Phoenix) have contained microphones, however, the former failed to reestablish communications and the latter was never turned on, meaning these may be the first noises humanity ever hears from another planet. The main functions of the microphones are to record the landing and to assist during sample analysis. If the landing microphone survives, it will also pick up the sounds of Martian winds and the movement of the rover itself.
Perseverance is also equipped with a drill to acquire rock and soil cores. But for the first time, these samples will be set aside in sealed cylinders for collection by a future mission, after which they will be returned to Earth to undergo detailed analysis. As a result, Perseverance is the first stage in humanity being able to retrieve objects from another planet.
What is the ultimate goal of the mission?
There are multiple outcomes NASA hopes to achieve, the primary of which is to search for signs of whether microbial life ever existed on the red planet. The Jezero crater is the perfect location for this, as there is strong evidence that it was once a lake. It has some of the most well preserved delta deposits of any crater on Mars. If scientists find biosignatures anywhere on the surface, it will most likely be there.
The second goal of Perseverance is to characterise the climate of Mars, building upon the research of its predecessors. Studying the Martian climate today will also help scientists determine what the planet was like millions of years ago, helping to contribute to the question of whether it was capable of supporting life.
The rover will also study the geology of the surface, helping to improve our knowledge of how the planet formed. There is a particular emphasis on finding rocks that formed in water, as these are the most likely candidates for organic material.
The final goal is to test various technologies on Mars that may come of use to human colonies in the next few decades. Primarily the production of oxygen and fuel, as well as vital research on how best to protect settlers from the Martian climate.
Ultimately, Perseverance marks a substantial milestone in the history of space exploration. It provides the potential to find the first evidence of life outside of Earth, along with paving the steps for colonization of other worlds. The information it gains will likely be invaluable to scientists everywhere.