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NASA Perseverance rover explores Mars: Everything you need to know

NASA will search for signs of ancient life in a crater and, for the first time, fly a helicopter on another planet.

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The Perseverance rover being lowered to Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. The photo was taken about 20 meters from the ground. 

NASA/JPL-Caltech
This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

Success. On Feb. 18, NASA's Perseverance rover officially aced its journey to Mars and survived a harrowing landing to arrive safely on the surface of the red planet. The next-gen rover and its companion -- an experimental helicopter called Ingenuity -- have opened a new era in planetary exploration.

Ingenuity is a tech demonstration, intended to be the first vehicle to achieve powered flight on another planet. Perseverance has a bigger, bolder mission -- one that could forever change our understanding of the cosmos. It will hunt for signs of past life on Mars.

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The Mars we know today was once very different. Humanity's latest rover is now a resident of the dry and dusty Jezero Crater, which was likely home to an ancient lake. It's the perfect place to look for signs of microbes from Mars' past.

Since Sojourner in 1997, NASA has sent a succession of increasingly sophisticated wheeled explorers to Mars. Perseverance is the latest and greatest. In July 2020, it launched on an epic journey across space. After landing in February, the six-wheeled vehicle snapped images of the Martian landscape, listened to the breeze and prepared to begin surface operations.

What's next

Now that Perseverance is on Mars and has checked out as healthy, it will begin its surface operations phase. 

The rover is an entire laboratory on wheels, and there are a lot of science instruments and moving parts that will need to be checked and tested in the early days of the mission. "Project engineers and scientists will now put Perseverance through its paces, testing every instrument, subsystem, and subroutine over the next month or two," said NASA in a statement on Feb. 18.  

One of the first images back from Perseverance on Mars showed one of the rover's wheels along with some intriguing rocks.

NASA

The initial images to come back from the surface showed some fascinating rocks with small pits or holes. One of the first geology questions the team will look to answer is how those rocks were formed and if they are volcanic or sedimentary.

On a mission

Perseverance will do much more than snap amazing images of Mars. These are some of the key mission objectives:

  • Look for signs of ancient microbial life.
  • Collect Martian rock and dust samples for later return to Earth.
  • Deliver an experimental helicopter.
  • Study the climate and geology of Mars.
  • Demonstrate technology for future Mars missions.

The mission is planned to last for at least one Mars year, which works out to about 687 days on Earth (it takes longer for Mars to go around the sun). However, NASA has a good track record with extending its robotic Mars missions. We can look to the long-lived Opportunity and Curiosity rovers as role models for this. 

Hello, Mars

The rover reached the surface of Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. The landing process involved some of the most harrowing minutes of the entire mission, and you can relive it through an incredible NASA video released just days after arrival.

Earth observers were treated to an unprecedented view of the entry, descent and landing process thanks to cameras that captured all of the excitement and stress, from the opening of the parachute to the lowering of the rover.  

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Perseverance tested some new landing techniques, one of which -- the "Range Trigger" -- was all about deploying the parachute at exactly the right time. "If the spacecraft were going to overshoot the landing target, the parachute would be deployed earlier," said NASA. "If it were going to fall short of the target, the parachute would be deployed later, after the spacecraft flew a little closer to its target."  The landing systems worked flawlessly.

Jezero Crater

This Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image shows the Jezero Crater delta region. 

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL

Jezero Crater is located just north of Mars' equator and was once home to a river delta. That history of water makes it a prime spot to look for signs of past microbial life. 

"The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology," said NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen when the site was announced in 2018.  

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Within days of the landing, NASA released the rover's first panorama of the crater, a sweeping view of the rocky and dusty landscape that will be Perseverance's science playground. 

Vital statistics

The car-sized Perseverance rover looks fairly similar to its predecessor, Curiosity, but also represents quite a few technology advances since Curiosity was designed. Here are the numbers:

Length: 10 feet (3 meters)
Weight: 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms)
Wheels: Six aluminum wheels with titanium spokes
Top speed: Just under 0.1 mile per hour (152 meters per hour)

Science instruments

The Perseverance rover is stocked with instruments that it will use to investigate the Jezero Crater on Mars.

NASA

Perseverance is loaded with seven instruments chosen to help it achieve its mission objectives. You can get the full rundown from NASA, but here are some highlights:

Mastcam-Z: The camera system mounted on the rover's mast is equivalent to eyes on a head. According to NASA, its main job is "to take high-definition video, panoramic color and 3D images of the Martian surface and features in the atmosphere with a zoom lens to magnify distant targets." The mastcam will be our main viewing window onto the Jezero Crater.

Moxie: The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment is one of the ways Perseverance is helping to prepare humans to go to Mars. This instrument is designed to make oxygen from the carbon dioxide atmosphere. This capability will be necessary to help future human explorers breathe, but it would also help us make propellant for rockets right on site. That's a necessary step for bringing our Mars astronauts back to Earth after their missions.

SuperCam: When you put a camera, laser and spectrometers together, you get SuperCam, an instrument that will help look for organic compounds, a key part of the quest for signs of past microbial life. "It can identify the chemical and mineral makeup of targets as small as a pencil point from a distance of more than 20 feet (7 meters)," said NASA. 

Sherloc: The "Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals," or Sherloc, as the instrument is affectionately known, will search for signs of life on the red planet. The instrument and its companion camera (nicknamed Watson) are capable of taking microscopic images of Mars and analyzing them. Equipped with a laser it can fire at the surface, Sherloc is able to measure chemicals present in the soil and rock using a technique known as spectroscopy.

Helicopter on board

The NASA Mars helicopter team attaches a piece to the flight model in early 2019.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

"Let's send a helicopter to Mars" might sound a little far-fetched, but NASA is doing it anyway. Ingenuity, a small helicopter designed to work in the challenging conditions on the red planet, is tucked into the rover's belly. The helicopter reported in to mission control after the landing and appeared to be in good shape.

Ingenuity is a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. It will hang out under the rover for as long as a few months until NASA finds a suitable spot to deploy it. Perseverance will drop it onto the Martian surface and then move away. 

The helicopter will make the first attempt at powered flight on another planet. NASA hopes Ingenuity soars and becomes a model for a new way to investigate other worlds.

Check out this video for more on how this little chopper could change the way we approach space exploration.

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Joining its siblings

NASA now has three machines operating on the surface of Mars: the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers and the stationary InSight lander. InSight is located in a region called Elysium Planitia, a large plains area. Curiosity is cruising around Gale Crater, a giant ditch with a massive mountain inside it. Perseverance will be scoping out a very different part of the planet as it continues NASA's legacy of Mars exploration.

The last time we had two functioning rovers on Mars was in 2018 when the Opportunity rover lost contact with home due to the impact of a global dust storm. Perseverance won't have the same issues as Opportunity. Like Curiosity, it uses a nuclear power source that doesn't require sunlight to keep it going.

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'Explore as one'

This plate holds the names of nearly 11 million people and carries a coded message.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance is a long way from Earth, but it carries poignant remembrances of its home planet. Over 10.9 million people signed up to have their names travel with the rover through NASA's Send Your Name to Mars public outreach program. The names are etched on small silicon chips that NASA installed on the rover on an aluminum plate underneath a protective shield.

The plate also bears an illustration of the Earth, our sun and Mars. Hidden in the sun's rays is the message "explore as one," written in Morse code

A separate aluminum plate pays tribute to health care workers and their efforts to aid humanity during the coronavirus pandemic. This plate carries an illustration of a serpent wrapped around a rod with the Earth at the top.

These names and messages are a reminder that NASA's robotic explorers never truly travel alone. Perseverance is the culmination of years of effort from NASA, but it's also an emissary for humanity, an extension of our curiosity and sense of wonder and a little bit of Earth on Mars.

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