NASA scientists are about to get one step closer to knowing what, if anything, has lived on Mars, with the launch of the Mars 2020 spacecraft at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday, July 30. The mission will take a rover called Perseverance and the first-ever space helicopter to the red planet, hopefully arriving in February 2021. The objectives of the mission center on detecting Mars’ habitability, and even signs of past life, as well as experiments that investigate the possibility of human exploration.
One of Perseverance’s main goals will be to collect samples that could prove Mars was once home to microscopic life. Understanding Mars’ past climate and learning more about its geology will also help researchers fill in longstanding gaps in our understanding about how the planet was formed and how it has changed over time. That could help us more fully grasp why Earth and its neighbor—which were originally made from the same deep space materials—turned out to be such contrasting compatriots. And that’s just the first step in an ambitious mission to bring humans back to the Moon, and then eventually to Mars.
The mission’s carefully chosen landing site is the Jezero Crater, where an ancient river delta full of mineral-rich sediments joined a huge lake—the kind of place scientists think might have supported life. Mars orbiters have already spent years collecting information and images from 200 miles above Jezero. But pinpointing signs of ancient life will require a closer look, and that’s where Perseverance comes in.
The robotic scientist, which weighs about 2,300 pounds and is the size of a small car, will spend at least one Mars year (about 687 Earth days) using a specially designed drill to collect intact rock cores—rather than pulverizing the rock the way its predecessor Curiosity did—and store these samples on the surface until future missions can return them to Earth. All this study requires a new set of instruments, which, like any prepared student, Perseverance is toting on its back. One instrument can detect organic matter; another measures the composition of rocks and soil. Together, they’ll help us learn with greater precision than ever before what Mars is made of.
Perseverance (nicknamed ‘Percy’) also carries one particularly ambitious tool, a proof-of-concept experiment called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment). Nestled inside the rover itself, MOXIE will test whether it might be possible for future astronauts to turn the planet’s carbon dioxide atmosphere into oxygen for both breathing and rocket propellant.
This veritable Swiss Army knife of instruments will be accompanied by the first-ever space helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity. The diminutive aircraft weighs only four pounds, but it will attempt to do something big: fly in another world. Ingenuity will use four carbon-fiber blades spinning at 40 rotations per second to navigate gravity that is a fraction of Earth’s and an atmosphere that is just 1% as dense as our own.
Showing that Martian flight and local oxygen creation are both possible on this small scale will open important doors. In the short term, flying vehicles on Mars could offer perspectives of the landscape that can’t be accessed by rovers on the surface or spacecraft in near orbit. It could also provide key transport services between distant missions and access to areas that would be difficult for rovers to get to. In the long term, though, such technologies lay an essential foundation for NASA’s Artemis Program, helping us take our first steps back to the Moon—and, perhaps some day, beyond.