News, Science

Perseverance Rover Starts Two-Year Mission on Mars

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An illustration of the NASA rover Perseverance. Image: NASA

By Monique Conrod

NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, landed on Mars on February 18. It is on a two-year mission to look for signs of ancient life on the planet.

A rover is a motorized vehicle designed to travel across the surface of a planet or moon. The rover left Earth on July 30, 2020 and traveled for 203 days, across 471 million kilometres, to reach Mars.

Perseverance—nicknamed Percy—is the fifth rover to land successfully on Mars, but it is the first one to be part of a “sample return” mission.

“Sample return” means the rover will collect samples of rock and soil and store them in tubes on the surface of the planet. Future spacecraft sent by NASA and the European Space Agency will pick up the samples and bring them back to Earth, sometime in the 2030s.

Looking for signs of life

Once the samples are back on Earth, scientists will analyze them to see if they contain any “biosignatures” or signs of life.

Perseverance landed in a flat area called the Jezero Crater, just north of the planet’s equator. The crater was the site of an ancient lake and river delta. Scientists think it is a good place to look for fossils of microbes.

Microbes are tiny living organisms, so small you need a microscope to see them. The organisms might have lived in the wet environment of a Martian lake or river, and then been preserved as fossils in the rocks and soil.

In addition to collecting samples to send home, Perseverance will also study some of the rocks and sediment itself. It has several special instruments to help it learn about the planet’s geology, climate and weather, as well as look for traces of ancient microbes.

First colour pictures from Mars

Perseverance is the largest rover NASA has sent to Mars. It’s about the size of a large car and weighs more than 1000 kilograms. It has more cameras than any other rover. Just after it landed, it sent back the first colour pictures ever beamed directly from Mars. (Usually, images from rovers are enhanced by scientists at NASA to show the correct colours.)

Perseverance also has two microphones, which will allow us to hear sounds from Mars for the first time.

The rover is carrying a small helicopter, about the size of a drone, called Ingenuity. Ingenuity is the first flying machine ever sent to another planet. It will be used to look at places that rovers can’t reach. One day, helicopters like Ingenuity could act as scouts or delivery vehicles for astronauts living on Mars.

Perseverance is also carrying a device called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) which will attempt to make oxygen from the planet’s atmosphere.

The air on Mars is mostly carbon dioxide. MOXIE will take in carbon dioxide and “breathe out” oxygen. If it works, larger versions of MOXIE may one day make it possible for humans to live and work on Mars.

THINK AND DISCUSS

The rover is named Perseverance. What does that mean and why does it seem appropriate for this rover? Its helicopter is named Ingenuity. Why?

How long did it take Perseverance to reach Mars? Why did it take so long?

From what you read in the article, name all of the instruments Perseverance has and the things it will do.

Mars is about 127 million miles (204 million kilometres) from Earth. It takes about 11 minutes for light to travel from Mars to Earth. Any information received from the rover happened 11 minutes earlier! What would happen if things you said to someone else were delayed by 11 minutes?

Do you think humans will live on Mars in your lifetime? Why or why not?

An image of one of the six wheels aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover on Mars
This photo shows one of Perseverance’s six wheels on Mars. Image: NASA

LINKS

NEW LINK! NASA put a fun, secret message in Perseverance’s parachute. Check out CBC’s article about how people figured it out: https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/secret-message-parachute

Mars Sample Mission https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PVjj0PEPMA

Ingenuity helicopter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RQWv1ybsjM

Animated simulation of landing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzmd7RouGrM

What MOXIE does https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/spacecraft/instruments/moxie/

Facts about Mars https://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronomy/solar-system/mars.asp