NASA to launch new Mars rover this week

NASA plans to launch its new Perseverance Mars rover – which will set out to seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth – by the end of July.

This will be the fifth rover the space agency has sent to Mars, on the heels of Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity.

These rovers have helped scientists make several discoveries – including the presence of frozen and liquid water on the planet – since the first landing in 2004.

NASA is expected to launch Perseverance from the Cape Canaveral station in Florida by no later than 30 July 2020.

Following a space flight of around seven months, Perseverance is set to land in the planet’s Jezero Crater on 18 February 2021.

According to NASA’s current research, the crater may have hosted an oasis with current evidence pointing to a large river in the area that flowed between 3 and 4 billion years ago.

Perseverance will aim to collect preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life in this area.

It is the first rover to employ a sample caching system to collect these samples for return to Earth in a future mission.

While Curiosity’s drill pulverises rocks for analysis, Perseverance’s will cut intact rock cores around half the size of a piece of chalk and place them in tubes to be stored until the rover reaches an appropriate drop-off location.

Biggest and most sophisticated rover

Built-in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, Perseverance measures around 3 metres in length and weighs more than a tonne, making it the largest and heaviest robotic Mars rover NASA has built.

To put this into perspective, the first Mars rover Sojourner was only around 66 centimetres long and weighed a modest 10kg – making it around the size of large microwave oven.

Perseverance is also the most sophisticated rover to be sent to Mars, equipped with advanced computational capabilities for landing and other systems, and a wide array of scientific instruments.

These include a Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument, which can detect organic matter, and a Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), which measures the composition of rocks and soil.

This will allow Perseverance to map organic matter, chemical composition and texture together at a higher level of detail than any Mars rover has done before.

The rover will also carry a brand new separate experiment – a small helicopter called Ingenuity – which is set to be the first aircraft to be flown in a controlled way on another planet.

Ingenuity employs two 1.2-metre long carbon fibre blades that spin at around 2,400rpm – eight times as fast as a standard helicopter on Earth.

It also features innovative solar cells, battery, avionics, sensors, telecommunications, and other designs and algorithms, in addition to off-the-shelf components such as two smartphone cameras, an altimeter, inclinometer, and computer processors.

Keep an eye out

Perseverance will carry 19 cameras to provide detailed imagery of the Mars landscape.

Four additional cameras will give engineers a high-definition view of the entry, descent, and landing stages.

The raw and processed images of the mission will be made available to the public on the Perseverance mission’s website.

Below are images of the Perseverance rover during its first test drive, as well as renders of the rover and Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.

Now read: Photos from outer space – South African cities at night

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NASA to launch new Mars rover this week