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How NASA's next-gen Perseverance Mars rover tops older sibling Curiosity

The next Mars rover is the biggest and most advanced yet, with a mission to pave the way for human visitors.


This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

NASA has once again sent what amounts to the ultimate driverless car to Mars. Perseverance, the rover previously known as Mars 2020, left Earth Thursday to become the successor robot to NASA's Curiosity, which has been roving the red planet since 2012.

This latest-generation planetary explorer comes from a long line of well-traveled bots with some big upgrades over its older sibling that should allow scientists to see, touch and -- for the first time ever -- hear Mars in new ways.

Martian audio-visual club

An assortment of Mars rovers and orbiters have sent myriad views of the red planet home, but we've yet to actually open a microphone there to capture the sounds of our neighboring planet. Perseverance aims to finally change this by carrying a pair of mics that will pick up the audio of landing on the planet, as well as the ambient noise of another world and the whirring din of a rover at work. 

"Hearing how the mast swivels, the wheels turn, or hearing how other instruments sound can also be an important engineering diagnostic tool," said Greg Delory, the CEO and co-founder of space hardware company Heliospace. He's an adviser to Perseverance's SuperCam microphone team. 

SuperCam is the rover's new science instrument that blasts rock and other materials with a laser while its microphone records the subtle sounds made by different types of rock as they get zapped. The SuperCam mic will also be able to pick up the Martian wind and other sounds from the rover's environment. 

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The other on-board mic is part of the entry, descent and landing system that includes full-color cameras to capture the whole thrilling ride down to the surface. 

All together, Perseverance is loaded with 23 cameras, most of them color devices. It will be capable of capturing HD video and stereo 3D panoramas and of zooming in on a target the size of a house fly from over 100 yards (91 meters) away. 

Save it for later

A key part of Perseverance's mission is to collect rock and gas samples from the Martian surface that will then be secured for possible later retrieval by a future mission.

A significant portion of the rover's belly is taken up by instruments for collecting and analyzing Martian geology.

"I can't wait for the time that these unique samples will one day return to Earth and be available for study by scientists around the world," planetary scientist Caroline Smith from the UK Natural History Museum said in a statement. Smith is working with NASA and the European Space Agency to plan how the samples will be curated upon their delivery to Earth.

The sample return mission is part of one of the larger goals for Perseverance -- looking for evidence of past life on Mars. Jezero Crater, where the rover will land, is thought to have once been home to a large body of water the size of Lake Tahoe, making it a prime spot for life in the distant past. 


A flying sidekick

Perseverance will be fully grounded on Mars, but it's carrying something new and exciting: the first helicopter to ply the thin atmosphere of our neighboring planet. 

Dubbed Ingenuity, the tiny chopper is stowed in the belly of the rover, to be expelled onto the surface for some flight tests. This should be very interesting since we've never flown on another planet and the atmosphere of Mars is very different from that of Earth. 

Put another way, don't expect too much from this little space drone. But if it works, it could mean big ups (sorry) for how we explore other worlds in the future. 

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Prepping for Elon and other human visitors

One of the stated goals of the Perseverance mission is to make key advances that will support the future arrival of actual people to become the first (or at least the most recent) Martians. 

The rover is equipped with experiments like Moxie, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, which will test a way to pull oxygen out of literal Martian thin air. It will also use instruments to look at how the ubiquitous dust in that air could impact human life support systems and other key technologies. 

Still other experiments will look for subsurface water, study the Martian atmosphere, climate and weather, and assess their impact on potential human explorers. 

Fancy new wheels and a stronger arm

Engineers took some lessons learned from Curiosity and the punishment delivered to it by sharp, pointy Martian rocks and applied them to beefing up the wheels on Perseverance. They're narrower, but have a bigger diameter and are made out of thicker aluminum. This, and all its new tools, make Perseverance heavier than its older sibling.

Wielding all those tools also requires a larger "hand" or turret on the end of its robotic arm. The arm extends 7 feet (2 meters), ending in the rotating 99-pound (45-kilogram) turret holding a scientific camera, chemical analyzers and rock drill. It's pretty much the ultimate power glove.

Curiosity had a similar setup, but the turret on Perseverance weighs 33 percent more because it has bigger instruments and a drill meant to cut into intact rock cores to collect samples for storage.

All in all, Perseverance is the most advanced robot to visit Mars yet, and if all goes well, it might be one of the last to make the trip alone without human companions.