NASA’s newest Mars rover is on his way to Mars, where he will search for traces of (former) life.

It worked! The Mars 2020 mission has just been launched and the rover Perseverance successfully took to the skies. The launch went entirely according to the book.

At 13.50 (Dutch time) the Atlas-V rocket propelled the Mars rover Perseverance from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The weather looked good during the morning, so it was soon clear that the launch could continue. Then the marsrover was launched exactly at 13.50. The missile performed a number of complex maneuvers as it skimmed through the Earth’s atmosphere. These also went well. The rover has now detached itself from the top stage of the rocket, officially launching Perseverance on its months-long journey to the red planet.

NASA has been working on Perseverance since 2012 and had to overcome the necessary hurdles to actually get the mission off the ground. For example, Perseverance is the heaviest rover sent to Mars to date, requiring significant time to develop and test parachutes that allow the rover to safely land on Mars. Developing the systems with which Perseverance will collect and store stones and dust on Mars was also quite a task. But the biggest challenge facing NASA during the preparations for this mission was waiting for the last moment: the corona virus. The corona measures suddenly meant that much more work had to be done remotely and the schedule came under considerable pressure. Partly due to the rapid spread of the virus, it should launch the European Mars rover Rosalind Franklin to be postponed by two years . But the team behind Persverance worked incredibly hard to ensure that the Mars rover could still take to the skies. A great achievement that reinforces the name of the rover.

For a long time, the mission was referred to as the Mars 2020 mission. The robot trolley was only given a name last March. Last year, American school students were given the opportunity to file a name for NASA’s latest Mars cart. And the American space agency has known that. Roughly 28,000 students made an attempt and provided NASA with a name and substantiation for that name. A winner has now rolled out of all those entries. Thirteen-year-old Alexander Mather is off with the grand prize and can soon say that a car is driving around on Mars with a name he has come up with. Mather submitted the name ‘Perseverance’, which means ‘persistence’. It fits nicely with the names of previous rovers sent by NASA to Mars: Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. These names were also invented by students.

Once on Mars, the rover is facing an important task : the rover will search in rocks for traces of microbes that may have roamed the red planet in a gray past. Because where earlier Mars rovers searched for evidence that Mars may have been livable, they failed to actually detect life. That must now change. Perseverance is equipped with a range of new scientific tools that make it possible to find extraterrestrial life. So the rover will actually look for traces of microbial life from the past.

Artistic impression of the Perseverance marsrover. 
Image: NASA

The Mars rover is on its way to the Jezero crateron Mars: a 45-kilometer area slightly north of the Martian equator. Researchers believe that about 3.5 billion years ago, the Jezero crater was filled with water carried by rivers to the crater. The ‘arms’ of this delta can still be seen on the crater bottom and have been recorded by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Scientists suspect that the rivers flowing in and out of the lake contain organic molecules, other potential signs of microbial life, or even microorganisms. Traces of this may still be stored in deposits of the river delta or in the sediments of the lake. The Jezero crater is therefore one of the oldest and scientifically one of the most interesting landscapes that Mars has to offer.

The robber is not only looking for traces of life. NASA also wants to collect various Mars samples during the mission. After the rover collects a core, it is analyzed on board and packed and temporarily stored in the belly of the rover. When the time is right Рand a suitable location has been found Рthe carefully packed samples are placed on the surface of Mars, so that they can be collected and brought to Earth during future space missions, where they can be examined even more closely. Time will also be made available for testing technologies that will come in handy during manned missions to the Moon or Mars itself. For example, a technology is being tested that aims to convert CO2 Рwhich is abundant in the Martian atmosphere Рinto oxygen. If this technology works, it may be able to use it in the future to supply Martian settlers with oxygen. Perseverance is also equipped with different materials that future spacesuits will be made of , so that scientists can see in practice which materials are most suitable for the red planet.

Perseverance does not travel alone.¬†The mars rover is accompanied by the very first¬†Marsh helicopterwhich he will park on the red planet in the spring of 2021.¬†This Mars helicopter will be the first ‘airplane’ to fly around another planet.¬†It promises to be an exciting mission.¬†Because it is still entirely questionable whether the helicopter will get off the ground at all.¬†Mars’ atmosphere is about a hundred times thinner than Earth’s.¬†This means that the atmosphere just above the Martian surface is about as thin as the Earth’s atmosphere at an altitude of 30,000 meters.¬†Helicopters never fly that high.¬†Although the makers have of course taken this into account, it will still be exciting to see how the helicopter will fare on Mars.

The rover is about the size of a small car and has a mass of 1025 kilograms. It means that Perseverance is comparable in size to Curiositybut is clearly different from its immediate predecessor. For example, the rover has got more robust wheels. This can of course be traced back to the considerable wear and tear that the wheels of Curiosity have endured in recent years. In addition, the rover has a completely different system for sampling the surface of Mars. The software on board Mars 2020 is also different. This software makes Mars 2020 a lot more autonomous than Curiosity. The rover is therefore expected to be able to cover much greater distances without having to make interim contact with the control room on earth. The rover can also use its energy more efficiently thanks to this software.

It is very exciting that the mission has now actually started. It promises to be a beautiful mission, which goes a little further than the missions of previous Mars rovers. However, the first results will take some time. First, Perseverance must travel 500 million kilometers over seven months to reach the promising Jezero crater on the red planet, where it is expected to arrive on February 18, 2021. The mission duration of the Mars rover includes one Martian year (which is approximately two Earth years), but the mission could also be extended.

Perseverance isn’t the only Mars rover heading to the red planet, by the way.¬†Recently, the¬†Arabian Hope Probe was¬†launched¬†from the Japanese island of Tanegashima, using a Japanese H-IIA missile¬†.¬†A first for the United Arab Emirates, because it is the first time that the United Arab Emirates has undertaken a mission to Mars.¬†And also the¬†Chinese Mars Mission has officially started.¬†The rocket with the spacecraft were launched into the air from its launch site on the Chinese island of Hainan.¬†It is no coincidence that three missions to Mars have started in a few weeks.¬†It has everything to do with the position of Mars with respect to Earth.¬†Once every two years, the distance between the two celestial bodies is the smallest and is the ideal time to undertake a mission to Mars.¬†After all, spacecraft can reach the red planet relatively quickly – and with relatively little fuel.

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