In March 2020, at an assembly held at the Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia, Alex Mather’s classmates received big news from NASA.
Mather had submitted a possible name for the Administration’s newest Mars rover, and this submission—among 28,000 received by NASA from young space enthusiasts—was “Perseverance.” The night before his school assembly, he learned his submission had been chosen.
It’s a NASA tradition to have kids choose the names of Mars rovers, Washington Post’s KidsPost reported in March. Kids have come up with the past four: Curiosity, which landed on the red planet in 2012; Spirit, which landed in 2004; Opportunity, which landed three weeks after Spirit; and Sojourner, which landed on the Fourth of July in 1997.
Now, at approximately 3:55 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Feb. 18, Perseverance will attempt the most challenging—and precise—Mars landing in NASA history. If all goes smoothly, the rover will study Mars’ habitability in an attempt to determine if life ever took root on Mars. Perseverance, nicknamed “Percy” (many a scientist and science journalist has mentioned having trouble spelling “Perseverance”) will also look for signs of past life and conduct experiments that investigate the possibility of human exploration.
“Perseverance is NASA’s most ambitious Mars rover mission yet,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a Feb. 16 press release. “...the landing team will have its hands full getting us to Jezero Crater – the most challenging Martian terrain ever targeted for a landing.”
Jezero Crater is a 28-mile-wide hollow located on the western margin of the Isidis Planitia region in Mars’ northern hemisphere. About three billion years ago, Jezero hosted a nearly 820-foot-deep lake, fed by a nearby ancient river delta rich in mineral sediments. It’s the kind of place scientists think might have supported life. “I think that has to be the hands-down most exciting thing that this site has to offer,” Tim Goudge, a planetary scientist and postdoctoral fellow at University of Texas at Austin, told NOVA in 2018.
Mars orbiters have already spent years collecting information and images from 200 miles above Jezero. Pinpointing signs of ancient life will require a closer look, however. That’s where Perseverance, equipped with instruments that can detect organic matter and measure the composition of rocks and soil, comes in.
But there’s a hitch: The rover and its companion, the first-ever space helicopter, named Ingenuity, were built by humans on Earth, and humans are notoriously contaminated. “Humans are the dirtiest thing in that clean room” where spacecraft assembly happens, Moogega Cooper, astronomer and lead of planetary protection for the Mars 2020 Mission, told NOVA producer Terri Randall. “We have all kinds of microorganisms in our body and on our skin. And so we have to make sure that, from head to toe, and including our eyes” the spacecraft is protected from human contamination, which could falsely signify life on Mars.
But Cooper had a greater concern, brought on by the challenges of building a rover and conducting a NASA mission during a pandemic. “What was most worrying,” she says, “was that off the clock, you might catch COVID. There is now a vector to wipe out an entire team that could completely derail the mission and throw us off of our scheduled goal.”
Fortunately, Perseverance successfully launched on Jul. 30, 2020 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Since then, it has flown more than 290 million miles, zooming through space at 49,290 mph relative to the sun.
Percy’s 17-minute-long entry, descent, and landing will be broadcast on NASA television, beginning with the separation of Perseverance and the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter from the spacecraft’s entry capsule. Next, while traveling at roughly 12,100 mph, the spacecraft will hit the top of the Martian atmosphere; friction from the atmosphere will heat the bottom of the spacecraft to temperatures as high as 2,370 F. Moments later, it will deploy its parachute at “supersonic speed,” NASA writes in its Feb. 16 press release.
The Perseverance rover will use radar to detect how far it is from the surface of the red planet and a safe landing site. Once the entry capsule fully separates from the rover and its “jetpack,” which is equipped with retrorockets (small auxiliary rockets fired in the direction of travel to slow a craft down), Perseverance will touch down on Mars at 3:55 p.m. EDT.
First, it’ll pop up its head, take pictures, and transmit them back to Earth. Engineers will also check on the rover’s health during its first few days on its new home planet, NASA writes in its press release. Then, the more difficult task of identifying signs of life and testing technology designed to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere (in hopes that the gas could be used for fuel—or for humans to breathe—on future missions) will begin.
If life has existed on Mars before, former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman tells NOVA, it may be a sign that extraterrestrial life is more plentiful throughout our universe than previously thought. But there’s also a chance that scientists don’t find any signatures of life on the red planet. “And that'll just tell us that our one planet is so unique and miraculous,” geologist Tanja Bosak says.
“Perseverance is playing a very critical role in our understanding of our place in the universe,” Mars rover engineer Elio Morillo tells NOVA. “And I think that's very noble.”
Tune in or stream "Looking for Life on Mars" on Wednesday, Feb. 24 at 9/8c on PBS.