The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover launched on July 30, 2020, toward Mars. The launch window was timed for Mars’ closest approach to Earth, an alignment called “Mars opposition” that happens once every 26 months. The October 2020 Mars opposition was the closest Mars approach until the possible human Mars mission launch windows in 2033 and 2035.
The Perseverance landing is planned for Feb. 18, 2021 at Jezero Crater, 18.4 degrees north, 77.7 degrees east, in the Nili Fossae region of Mars. According to rover science team members Sanjeev Gupta and Briony Horgan, the mission science goal will be “to explore the history of water and chemistry in an ancient crater lake basin and associated river-delta environments to probe early Martian climates and search for life.”
The Mars 2020 spacecraft is currently halfway to Mars, traveling at about 100,000 kilometers per hour, relative to the Sun. It will take about six months (203 days) to traverse the 480 million kilometers from Earth to Mars on a sweeping Hohmann Transfer Orbit shown in the accompanying graphic.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance team is made up of hundreds of multidisciplinary scientists and engineers, with international participation from countries and organizations around the world. Perseverance predecessor Curiosity, still operating after eight years, is a fully packed Mars science laboratory. Instrumentation on the Perseverance Rover has evolved to search for evidence of past life on Mars and to cache drill samples for eventual return to Earth labs. Each system is represented by a principal investigator: planetary geologists, astrobiologists, and engineers.
Mastcam-Z has powerful cameras that can zoom in, focus, and take color 3-D images and video at high speed to allow detailed examination of distant objects.
MEDA, the Mars environmental dynamics analyzer, is a weather station that measures wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity, and the size and amount of dust particles in the Martian atmosphere.
MOXIE, the Mars oxygen in-situ resource utilization experiment, will demonstrate technology to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing air for future human explorers.
PIXL, the planetary instrument for X-ray lithochemistry, is an X-ray spectrometer used to identify chemical composition at a tiny scale. This will allow scientists to look for organic chemicals of possible past microbial life on Mars.
RIMFAX, the radar imager for Mars’ subsurface experiment, is a ground-penetrating radar system that will probe the geology below the rover to a depth of ten meters. RIMFAX will be used to detect ice, water and salty brines.
SHERLOC, the instrument for scanning habitable environments with Raman spectroscopy and luminescence for organics and chemicals, uses spectrometers, a laser and a camera to search for organic chemicals and minerals that may be signs of past microbial life from a wet environment.
SuperCam will examine rocks and soils with a camera, laser and spectrometers to find organic chemicals from possible past life on Mars. It can focus on targets as small as a sand grain from a distance up to seven meters.
Ingenuity UAV helicopter: In addition to this sophisticated instrument suite, Perseverance carries the small UAV helicopter, named Ingenuity, attached to the rover’s belly. It will be deployed for several flights up to 10 meters high and ranging up to 300 meters away from the rover to scout for science targets and driving routes.
Getting the Mars 2020 spacecraft launched in the narrow launch window on its trajectory to the Red Planet was just the first mission hurdle. The Perseverance Rover will land with an entry-descent-landing system similar to Curiosity: with a heat shield, a parachute and a sky crane performing a complex set of maneuvers. EDL is the “seven minutes of hell” to slow in Mars’ thin atmosphere to a safe, precise landing.
The spacecraft will slam into Mars’ atmosphere at 20,000 kilometers per hour, slowing on its aerodynamic heat shield. Four minutes later, traveling at 1,500 kilometers per hour, the spacecraft parachute will deploy and the heat shield will separate. At six minutes into the descent, now slowed to 300 kilometers per hour, the rover’s parachute and back shell will separate. The sky crane platform will take over with descent thrusters and will be guided to the rover landing zone by radar. The rover will then be finally lowered softly to the surface on sky crane cables. Explosive bolts will cut the cables to release the rover at touchdown as the sky crane platform flies safely away.
This will be a nail-biting show that will be broadcast live from the Space Flight Operations Center at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. on Feb. 18, 2021.
Meanwhile, stay tuned here. A future EXPLORER article will review the geology of Jezero Crater.