United States space agency NASA launched its latest mission to Mars called Perseverance last week. The rover is an unmanned mission, meaning there are no astronauts on board. But there are some challenging tasks ahead for NASA’s fifth rover headed for the Red Planet.
Perseverance will make landing on Mars in February 2021. The target landing site is the Jezero Crater, an ancient Martian lake. Perseverance has been fitted out with cameras, sensors, drills to dig into the Martian surface for samples and many other instruments for conducting experiments. These will be critical to studying soil samples for evidence of life forms that once lived there. Perseverance will also collect samples that will be brought back by another mission within the next ten years.
The rover, which is about the size of a small car, will also be carrying samples of spacesuits that will be worn by astronauts in future manned missions to Mars. The samples will be tested for their ability to withstand the higher radiation from the sun on the Martian surface that occurs due to the thinner atmosphere surrounding the planet.
Among the most important instruments on board is MOXIE, short for Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment. MOXIE can manufacture oxygen on Mars using the rich supply of carbon di-oxide in the Martian atmosphere. If NASA succeeds in making oxygen on Mars, it will make manned missions to the Red Planet much less expensive as astronauts will no longer need to carry oxygen supplies for their stay and two year journey back home. The oxygen will also be useful for making rocket fuel for the journey home. The Perseverance mission is therefore the first big step towards a manned mission to Mars.
The first heli on Mars
Perseverance will be the first rover to carry a helicopter to Mars. It is going to be quite a challenge to fly a helicopter in Mars’ thin air. But if NASA succeeds, it will widen the scope for exploration as the helicopter will be able to access terrain that the rover won’t be able to get to.