I missed seeing the Mars launch this week, but I have a really good excuse. I was looking at Mars in my telescope. I got up at 3 a.m., grabbed an eyeful of the Red Planet and then returned to bed but woke up a half-hour too late. Not to worry. NASA pulled it off without a hitch. When I awoke and fired up the computer, smiles on the faces of the NASA folks told the story. What a great way to start the day.
Landing sites are shown for Perseverance, Curiosity and Opportunity. NASA
Seven months from now, on Feb. 18, 2021, the Perseverance rover will descend via parachute and sky crane to the crater Jezero located in Syrtis Major, a large, thumb-shaped volcanic region in its southern hemisphere. Coincidentally it was the same feature I observed through the telescope at dawn and one of the planet’s most prominent dark markings.
An asteroid impact excavated the 30-mile-wide crater 3.5 billion years ago. Later, Jezero filled with water and became a lake. As the Martian climate changed and the lake dried up, water deposited layers of sediments. Within those sediments may be traces of possible Martian microbes, which Perseverance will assist in finding.
Jezero crater was once a lake and is now the landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission to look for past life. The outlet canyon at upper right was carved by water flooding over the crater rim several billion years ago. Ancient rivers carved the inlets on the left side of the crater. NASA / Tim Goudge
Perseverance will use its drill to gather up to 30 pencil-sized core samples in sealed tubes and then cache at a desired location on the surface. A future rover mission will return to the cache, retrieve and package the tubes, then blast them into orbit with a small rocket. A waiting orbiter would maneuver to the container — the first time two spacecraft would rendezvous in Martian orbit — grab it and then set course for Earth.
This illustration shows the drone-like Mars-copter called Ingenuity that will be under the command of the Mars Perseverance rover. NASA / JPL-Caltech
During its nominal year-long mission the rover will busy itself with many tasks including serving as the command center for piloting the first-ever helicopter on Mars. Aptly named Ingenuity, the craft resembles a drone but with really fast-spinning propellers to provide the lift it requires in the thin Martian atmosphere. Although radio signals travel at the speed of light, they take about a half-hour to reach Mars from Earth. That means no one can fly the machine in real time except the rover. It will command Ingenuity to areas of interest and then safely return it to home base.
Perseverance has two microphones, one mounted near the landing gear and the second on the SuperCam camera at top. The rover is 10 feet long, 7 feet high and weighs 2,260 pounds. NASA
Perseverance is also equipped with two microphones, one to tune in to the rover’s entry, descent and landing and another to listen to ambient sounds (like the wind) on Mars. Assuming all goes well this will be the first successful attempt to listen to Mars thanks in large part to efforts by the Planetary Society. Its co-founder Carl Sagan wrote a letter to NASA in 1996 urging the agency to send a microphone to Mars. I’m very excited about the opportunity to hear the planet; this new aural dimension will make Mars that much more real.
This is a closer look at the ancient river and river delta in Jezero crater where Perseverance will land. Billions of years ago when the Mars was clement water carved channels and transported sediments to form fans and deltas within lake basins. Some of the sediments contain clays and carbonates and potentially signs of life that once may thrived there. As the planet’s core cooled it began to lose its magnetic field, which allowed the sun to slowly strip away its once-denser atmosphere. Some water left for space, some still remains on the planet but combined with rocks or stored in its poles. NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/Brown University
Perseverance also carries an experimental device called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment) which will produce oxygen from Mars’s predominately carbon dioxide atmosphere using a process called solid oxide electrolysis. This will be an important first step in producing on-site oxygen for fuel during future human missions to the planet. Naturally, the rover bristles with cameras — 23 in all — plus ground-penetrating radar to study Martian geology below the surface. There are even samples of spacesuit materials that will be exposed to the weather to assist in the design of protective suits for future astronauts. One day women and men will kick up red dust 60 million miles from home while doing one of the things humans do best: being curious.