NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is set to launch this Thursday, taking the Perseverance rover to the red planet, armed with some of the most sophisticated scientific instruments ever sent into space, to explore if Mars could have ever harboured life.
It follows in the tracks of the car-sized Curiosity rover which landed in 2012 and is – despite NASA’s expectations – still operational, having confirmed its landing site, the Gale Crater, hosted a lake billions of years ago which could have supported microbial life.
NASA gave the mission the green light on Monday, with agency administrator Jim Bridenstine stating: “The launch readiness review is complete, and we are indeed go for launch.
“We are in extraordinary times right now with the coronavirus pandemic, and yet we have in fact persevered and we have protected this mission because it is so important,” he added.
The launch is scheduled for 12.50pm UK time on Thursday, and you will be able to follow it live with Sky News. Until then, here’s what you need to know about the mission and what it might teach us about life on Mars.
1. It’s Part Of a Wave Of Human Invasion
The NASA launch will mean that in July 2020 humanity sent a wave of unmanned spacecraft to Mars to see if it was ever habitable, and to find out if it could be again.
The three spacecraft are being sent by the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates, and they will land on or orbit the red planet next year after at least a six-month journey.
The timing of the launches has been dictated by Mars and Earth’s orbits, with a single one-month window during which the planets are close enough together permitting the six-month journey.
If the launches failed or were postponed, this window won’t open again for another 26 months – but both the Chinese Tianwen-1 (Questions to Heaven) mission, and the UAE’s Amal (Hope) satellite launches have taken place successfully.
2. A Successful Launch Doesn’t Mean a Successful Landing
Missions to Mars are rarely successful, and only the US has actually managed to put a spacecraft on the planet’s surface – which it has done eight times.
More than half of the spacecraft sent there have either blown up, burned up or crashed into the surface, including China’s last attempt – in collaboration with Russia – in 2011.
Both NASA and China’s spacecraft will need to plummet through the Martian atmosphere before landing, something which NASA’s teams have dubbed the “seven minutes of terror” considering the high rate of failure to land on the planet.
3. By the Time They Know What’s Happening, It Will Already Be Too Late
Although the mission is not set to land on Mars until the early afternoon of 18 February 2021, there will not be much time for deliberation when it is heading towards the Martian surface.
The rover, which has a mass of 1,050kg (2,313lbs), could easily simply add to the craters on the planet’s surface.
NASA hopes its brand new guidance and parachute-triggering technology will help steer the rover away from these hazards but its controllers back on Earth will be helpless.
Radio transmissions from Mars take 10 minutes to reach Earth so by the time the controllers see Perseverance has entered the atmosphere, it will have either already landed or been destroyed.
4. The Jezero Crater
NASA’s launch is currently scheduled for 30 July and the Perseverance rover is intended to touch down in an ancient river delta and former lake on the Martian surface known as the Jezero Crater.
The Jezero Crater is full of obstacles and dangers to the rover, including boulders, cliffs, sand dunes and depressions, any one of which could end the mission, both in landing and as the rover drives along the surface.
The deposits in the crater is rich in clay minerals, which form in the presence of water, meaning life may have once existed there – and such sediments on Earth have been known to store microscopic fossils.
Scientists have also noted that the crater doesn’t have a depth which matches its diameter, which means sediment likely entered the crater through flowing water – potentially up to a kilometre of it.
5. It Has a Helicopter
Perseverance is also equipped with a miniature helicopter named Ingenuity which weighs just 4lb (1.8kg) and will be the first rotorcraft to fly on another planet.
“The laws of physics may say it’s near impossible to fly on Mars, but actually flying a heavier-than-air vehicle on the red planet is much harder than that,” the space agency quipped.
The little chopper underwent a series of drills simulating the mission in a testing facility in California, including a high-vibration environment to mimic how it will hold up under the launch and landing conditions, and extreme temperature swings such as those experienced on Mars.
The autonomous test helicopter will have an on-board camera and will be powered by a solar panel, but will not contain any scientific instruments.
NASA aims to develop the drone as a prototype to see if it could be worth attaching scientific sensors to similar devices in future.
6. Preparation For a Manned Mission
NASA intends to send the first woman to the moon in 2024 and from there the first astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, and so some samples of its spacesuit material are also being sent with Perseverance to analyse how they stand up against the environment.
The agency plans to use what it learns from the Artemis missions to prepare for what it describes as “humanity’s next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars”.
The aim is to establish a permanent human presence on the moon within the next decade to uncover new scientific discoveries as well as lay the foundations for private companies to build a lunar economy.
“It all starts with US companies delivering scientific instruments and technology demonstrations to the lunar surface, followed by a spaceship, called the Gateway, in orbit around the moon that will support human and scientific missions, and human landers that will take astronauts to the surface,” NASA says.
But scale is an issue. Missions to the International Space Station are a regular success, but the moon is 1,000 times further away – requiring systems which need to be very robust and safe – and Mars is even further away still.
7. The First Leg Of a Round Trip to Mars
NASA says that verifying ancient life on Mars carries an enormous burden of proof. While the remnants of microbial life on Mars could have left telltale marks in the sediment layers which Perseverance will drill down into, it might be difficult to analyse them on the planet itself.
After drilling into the best rocks the rover will cache about half a kilogram of rock sample in dozens of titanium tubes that will be collected by another rover in approximately a decade’s time.
NASA and the European Space Agency are planning a Mars sample return campaign, where these samples can be examined with instruments that are far too large and complex to send to Mars.
8. You Will Get to Ride Along
The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission carries more cameras than any interplanetary mission in history, according to NASA.
The rover itself has 19 cameras which will send back breathtaking images of the Martian landscape, while four other cameras are attached to the parts of the spacecraft involved in entry, descent and landing.
These will allow engineers to put together a high-definition view of the landing process, as well as allow people at home to follow along with raw and processed images.
As part of a public awareness initiative NASA also undertook a “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign, through which people could send their names to Mars on three silicon chips stored aboard Perseverance.
Almost 11 million names were submitted during the registration period, which has now closed – however names may still be submitted ahead of the 2024 mission.