Meet Perseverance, JPL’s newest Mars rover

Deborah Netburn
Los Angeles Times

NASA’s newest Mars rover is called Perseverance, and it has already lived up to the name.

Weighing in at just over a ton and loaded with the most sophisticated instruments ever sent to the red planet, the six-wheeled vehicle has already survived a hurdle no previous rover has had to face: a global pandemic.

A replica of the Mars rover Perseverance is displayed outside the press site before a news conference at the Kennedy Space Center Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

After overcoming months of uncertainty, Perseverance is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, awaiting the start of the 309-million-mile journey that will take it to an ancient lake bed that may contain evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Despite the unprecedented challenges, the $2.4-billion space robot is expected to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as early as Thursday – right on schedule.

The rover traveled across the country from its birthplace at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge in February. After its arrival, as many as 90 NASA employees gathered in a cleanroom every day to reassemble, test and otherwise prepare the SUV-sized machine for the rigors of spaceflight.

Even in the midst of a devastating health crisis, that work cannot be done from home.

“Everyone on the team did their part and kept themselves healthy,” said Luis Dominguez, deputy electrical lead for the mission at JPL, who has been based in Florida since February. “We were incredibly lucky.”

Delaying the launch for even a few months was never an option. The orbits of Earth and Mars align only once every 26 months. In order to get to Mars in a reasonable period of time with a manageable amount of fuel, the rover has to launch within a period of 20 days or so relative to that closest approach.

“If you miss a planetary window to Mars, you essentially have to wait two years for the next opportunity,” said Matt Wallace, Perseverance deputy project manager at JPL.

If everything goes according to plan, Perseverance will spend seven months flying through space before touching down in Jezero Crater in mid-February. Once there, it will quickly begin searching for conclusive evidence that life once flourished on Mars.

“Every previous mission has seen in one way or another that Mars was once habitable” said Katie Stack Morgan, a geologist at JPL and deputy project scientist of the overall mission known as Mars 2020. “But with Perseverance we are taking the next step – looking for signs of life in the ancient rock record.”

To do this, scientists on Earth will peer through Perseverance’s camera “eyes,” scouring Jezero for rocks that contain patterns, textures and the distribution of chemicals that can only be explained by biological activity.

The rover will mostly hunt for stromatolites, rock structures that look similar to those created by microbial mats on Earth billions of years ago. But it will seek out other indicators of past life as well, including ones that could be unique to Mars.

“Our search is firmly based on what we see in the early Earth rock record, but we will also open our minds to what signs of life might look like on another planet,” Stack Morgan said.

While Perseverance is tasked with finding evidence of past life on Mars, it does not have the capability to prove that life actually existed.

Instead, the rover will use a powerful drill at the end of its hinged arm to bore into promising rocks and collect core samples, each about the size of a marker pen.

It’s a long and complicated process that could take more than a decade to complete.