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Mars rover set to launch from Florida in search of ancient life on the Red Planet

An engineer working on NASA's Mars 2020 mission uses a solar intensity probe to measure the amount of artificial sunlight that reaches different portions of the Mars Perseverance rover on Oct. 14, 2019, in the Space Simulator Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/TNS)

In early March, when out of thousands of name ideas for NASA’s new Mars rover 13-year-old Alexander Mather’s suggestion of “Perseverance” was chosen, no one foresaw the prescient message it would carry as the coronavirus pandemic capsized American life.

“We as humans evolved as creatures who can learn to adapt to any situation, no matter how harsh,” Alexander, a seventh-grader from Virginia, read aloud from his winning essay, with no way of knowing that COVID-19 would soon begin to take hold in the United States. “We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere. We, not as a nation, but as humans will not give up. The human race will always persevere into the future.”

With that desire at its core, Perseverance will soon be on its way to Mars to look for signs of ancient life and test technology that could one day be used to send astronauts to the Red Planet. The rover, about the size of a car, will collect samples that for the first time will be brought back to Earth by a spacecraft sent to gather them, building upon discoveries of NASA’s past rovers that found Mars could have once supported life.

Perseverance is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on Thursday between 7:50 a.m. and 9:50 a.m. atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and is one of three spacecraft launching to Mars this summer. Two others have already launched: the Hope Orbiter from the United Arab Emirates that will observe the planet’s atmosphere and weather, and China’s Tianwen-1 lander and rover.

The U.S. mission has had to be delayed three times, first to July 20 because of a faulty crane, then to July 22 to address a potential contamination issue and then to Thursday because of a problem with a liquid oxygen sensor line.

And as the window closes to get the American rover en route, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t let up and many of the agency’s teams have had to work from home to try to prevent the spread. They have only until Aug. 11 to launch Perseverance, otherwise the next window occurs in 2022.

“The time when we are working three shifts a day, 24-by-seven trying to finish up the final assembly, put the clean flight hardware on, do all the final testing and make sure that we are ready to go _ that’s right when we were hit by the by the pandemic,” said Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California where Perseverance was built.

If this week’s launch is successful, it will take about six and a half months for Perseverance to reach Mars, where it will attempt to land on the planet’s Jezero crater, a 28-mile-wide surface that billions of years ago was the location of a now dried-up river.

Scientists believe the river’s delta may contain traces of previous life. The crater is also one of the most well understood regions of Mars, said Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist at JPL, making it a prime spot to land.

Still, landing the rover without damaging it is one of the most difficult parts of the mission, said Matt Wallace, deputy project manager at JPL. The rover must slow to a halt from 12,000 mph, and once it’s broken through to Mars’ atmosphere there are about “seven minutes of terror” during which teams back on Earth cannot communicate with it.

“There is absolutely no interaction with the spacecraft during that period of time,” Wallace said. “It has to do that entire process itself. It has to understand where it is from a navigation perspective, it has to know when to jettison the crew stage and deploy the parachute, it has to understand where it is in Jezero.”

To do this, the rover will take pictures of Mars as it approaches the surface and compare the photos to a computerized map. If it’s heading toward a dangerous spot, the rover can divert somewhere else. It will also deploy a parachute and use heat shields to help it slow down and then the descent stage will lower the rover onto the surface. Once it’s touched down, the tether between the rover and descent stage will be cut and the stage will fly away.

“Our hearts will still be beating hard when we get to that part of the mission,” Wallace said. “It’s the first time we have ever been able to see a spacecraft land on another planet.”

Once on the ground, the spacecraft, which weighs about 2,300 pounds, will begin searching for possible “biosignatures” of past organisms. The rover will “sleep” to conserve power at night and go looking during the day, mostly autonomously.

“What we’re looking for are really the patterns and textures where we have a hard time explaining how that could have formed without the influence of life,” Stack Morgan said. “Our bar is high for the identification of a sign of life on another planet, as it should be, because we don’t want to make that discovery lightly. But at the same time … I think we also have to open our minds to the possibilities of what life could look like on another planet.”

The rover will drill for 43 samples and collect them in tubes that it will then leave on the planet’s surface to be collected by a future mission in 2026. Ken Farley, Mars 2020 project scientist based at Caltech, said the tubes are “one of the cleanest things that’s ever been built,” in order to ensure scientists don’t mistake matter that originated from Earth as Martian.

“Scientists have wanted a sample of Mars to study for generations. We have meteorites on Earth that came from Mars, but it’s not the same as getting an actual sample of pristine Mars rocks and soil to study,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Even now, NASA continues to study moon samples brought back by the Apollo program more than 50 years ago.”

Underneath the rover, a small, autonomous helicopter named “Ingenuity” will be stored that will for the first time test powered flight on another planet. The helicopter, which was named by Vaneeza Rupani, an 11th-grader from Alabama, weighs less than 4 pounds. If it’s successful, it could be used to explore more of the planet’s surface.

The mission will also test a piece of technology that can convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, a tool that could be used for life support systems for future crewed missions to the planet.

Testing these technologies is intertwined with the NASA’s mission to send astronauts to the moon by 2024 and eventually to Mars.

“All of these robotic precursor missions are leading up something that I think is even more magnificent,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, “and that is to a day when we plant an American flag on Mars.”


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