Mars 2020: NASA to Launch Perseverance Rover in Search for Ancient Life
With eight successful Mars landings, NASA is upping the ante with its newest rover.
Perseverance - set for liftoff this week - is NASA's biggest and brainiest Martian rover yet.
It sports the latest landing tech, plus the most cameras and microphones ever assembled to capture the sights and sounds of Mars.
This summer's third and final mission to Mars - after the United Arab Emirates' Hope orbiter and China's Quest for Heavenly Truth orbiter-rover combo - begins with a scheduled launch Thursday morning (July 30) from Cape Canaveral.
Like the other spacecraft, Perseverance should reach the Red Planet next February following a journey spanning seven months and more than 300 million miles (480 million kilometres).
It's set to touch down in an ancient river delta and lake known as Jezero Crater, not quite as big as Florida's Lake Okeechobee.
"Jezero is a crater that's about 45 kilometres in diameter and once had a lake in it that was hundreds of metres deep. And at the place where the canyon carrying the river and the water into the lake where that actually contacts the lake, there's a delta," explains project scientist Kenneth Farley.
"This is a place where fine grained sediment has fallen out to the bottom of the lake. And it is a wonderful place for things to live, and a wonderful place for evidence of life to be preserved."
Jezero Crater is full of boulders, cliffs, sand dunes and depressions, any one of which could end Perseverance's mission.
But it's worth the risks, say the scientists who chose it over 60 other potential landing sites.
Where there was water - and Jezero was apparently flush with it 3.5 billion years ago - there may have been life, though it was probably only simple microbial life, existing perhaps in a slimy film at the bottom of the crater.
But those microbes may have left telltale marks in the sediment layers.
"We can tell that it's rich in clay, carbonate and silica minerals," explains NASA research scientist Bethany Ehlmann.
"These are minerals that indicate neutral to alkaline waters that are good for life, hospitable for life, and carbonate and silica are also minerals that can entomb micro organisms and fossils over a long time. So, this is a great place to explore ancient habitats. It's a great place to look for life."
"In those river systems, in the deltas are where all of the good stuff accumulates, all the sediments, things wash down from other places," explains Scott Hubbard, former director of the NASA Ames Research Center.
"If you want to get a really broad look at the life of the Mississippi River, you know, you go down, look at the delta because it's all there."
Scientists want to know what Mars was like billions of years ago when it had rivers, lakes and oceans that may have allowed simple, tiny organisms to flourish before the planet morphed into the barren, wintry desert world it is today.
"Prior to about three and a half billion years ago, the planet was very different. It had flowing water on its surface, which says it was both warmer and wetter than today," explains Farley.
"So, we're looking for life in that time period. And we'd also like to actually understand how it was possible that there was liquid water on the surface of Mars."
Mars has long exerted a powerful hold on the imagination but has proved to be the graveyard for numerous missions.
Spacecraft have blown up, burned up or crash-landed, with the casualty rate over the decades exceeding 50 percent.
Only the U.S. has successfully put a spacecraft on Mars, doing it eight times, beginning with the twin Vikings in 1976.
Two NASA landers are now operating there, InSight and Curiosity.
Six other spacecraft are exploring the planet from orbit: three U.S., two European and one from India.
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