July 30th marked the successful launch of a new NASA Mars mission, named “Perseverance”. The launch of this rover was preceded by two other space missions: the United Arab Emirates' “Hope”, and China's “Tianwen-1”. All three launches were able to take advantage of an alignment between the Earth and Mars that only occurs once every 26 months.
The Perseverance rover, whose design is based on the Curiosity rover, is slated to land on the surface of Mars in February 2021. The rover will spend one Mars year (almost two Earth years) exploring the surface of Jezero Crater—an area which was once a lake over 3.5 billion years ago—in search for fossilized microbial life.
Many state-of-the-art tools have been built into the rover for collecting vital information about the environment on Mars. The main feature of the Perseverance rover is its robotic arm, which can be used to drill for rocks and collect samples. It is equipped with 43 test tubes to hold these samples. One new tool which distinguishes it from previous rovers is its microphones, which will allow scientists to listen to the sounds of entry, descent, and landing, as well as other sounds on Mars for the first time. It is also equipped with a deployable helicopter, named “Ingenuity”, which will be used to scout ahead for possible paths for the rover to roll along.
Notably, although samples of Martian soil and rock will be collected for analysis on Earth, as of yet, no spacecraft has been constructed that can make a return journey from Mars. To carry out such a mission is one of the key investigations NASA intends to conduct in the future, as the planned sample return is considered to be highly representative of the technical challenges astronauts will have to face in making a return trip from Mars. While it will not be until 2031 that the samples may finally make their way back to Earth, if all goes according to plan, major steps will have been taken towards humanity's goal of one day setting foot on another planet.
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