NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is completing its major mission on the Red Planet.
The car-sized Perseverance rover landed on the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021, an ambitious surface mission designed to last one Red Planet year, which is about 687 Earth days.
That time is now over; The Mars calendar turned to Friday (Jan. 6) for Perseverance. But don’t fret: The six-wheeled robot will transition seamlessly into an extended mission on Saturday (Jan. 7).
Connected: 12 Amazing Photos From the Perseverance Rover’s First Earth Year on Mars
Perseverance has two main tasks on the Red Planet. The rover is hunting for possible signs of Martian life at the bottom of a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer) jezero, which hosted a large lake and a river delta billions of years ago. Perseverance is also collecting dozens of samples that a joint NASA-European Space Agency (ESA) mission will bring to Earth for detailed study in the early 2030s, if all goes according to plan.
That campaign will launch a rocket-towing NASA lander as well as an ESA Earth-return orbiter to the Red Planet in the mid to late 2020s. The plan calls for Perseverance to drive its samples to the lander; The rocket will then launch the precious cargo into Mars orbit, where an ESA probe will intercept it and return the material to Earth.
Persistence has made a lot of progress on the sampling front to date. The rover has already filled and sealed 18 of its 38 titanium sample tubes (opens in new tab) as well as three of its five “witness tubes,” which will help mission team members assess the cleanliness of Perseverance’s sampling system.
And the rover has also begun to cache samples for dropping four of the planned 10 tubes on a patch of Jezero’s floor that the mission team calls Three Forks. This depot is a backup, to cover the possibility that Perseverance will not be able to deliver its samples to the lander when the time comes. (The rover is in good shape now, but there’s no guarantee that its health will hold through the end of the decade.)
In that case, two small helicopters launching on the lander would receive the sample tubes from the depot one by one.
With this hedge in mind, the mission team is collecting two samples from each of its target rocks. Persistence is to keep one set on the board and cache the other set.
The rendezvous helicopter will be based on Ingenuity, the 4-pound (1.8 kg) helicopter that made the journey to Mars with Perseverance.
Ingenuity’s main task was to show that aerial exploration of Mars is possible despite the planet’s thin atmosphere, which is only 1% as dense as Earth’s at sea level. The tiny rotorcraft quickly achieved that goal during a five-flight demonstration campaign and is now on an ambitious extended mission serving as a scout for Perseverance.
Ingenuity now has 37 flybys, which have covered a total distance of 4.7 miles (7.6 kilometers). Perseverance, for its part, has racked up about 8.7 miles (14.0 km) of off-Earth driving, and that total will increase significantly during its extended mission.
After dropping off samples at Three Forks Depot, Perseverance will head for the top of Jezero’s ancient river delta, with the ascent expected to be completed in February. The rover will explore the region for the next eight months, looking for, among other things, rocks that were washed into the crater by Jezero’s ancient river.
“The Delta Top campaign is our opportunity to get a glimpse into the geological process beyond the walls of Jezero Crater,” Katie Stack Morgan, Perseverance Deputy Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in a statement last month. (opens in new tab),
“Billions of years ago, a raging river carried debris and boulders miles away from the walls of Jezero,” she said. “We’re going to explore these ancient river deposits and get samples from their long-standing boulders and rocks.”
Mike Wall is the author of “out there (opens in new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaelwall (opens in new tab), Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab),