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Perseverance rover: NASA’s Mars car to seek signs of ancient life

The Perseverance rover will hunt for signs of ancient life and cache samples for future return to Earth.

Another artist’s concept showing NASA’s Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Perseverance rover isn’t just exploring the Red Planet. The life-hunting robot will also help a little bit of Mars make it to Earth a decade or so from now, if all goes according to plan.

Perseverance, the centerpiece of NASA’s $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, touched down inside the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. Once it’s fully up and running, the car-sized robot will search for evidence of past microbial life and collect several dozen samples for future return to Earth, among other ambitious tasks.

“I don’t think we’ve had a mission that is going to contribute so much to both science and technology,” NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk told shortly before Perseverance touched down. “It’s going to be truly amazing.”

If Perseverance looks familiar, that’s because the robotic explorer is largely based off its predecessor, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover, which landed in August 2012 and is still going strong today.

Like Curiosity, the Perseverance rover was built by engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Roughly 85% of Perseverance’s mass is based on Curiosity “heritage hardware,” saving NASA time and money and reducing risk considerably, agency officials have said.

Perseverance is about 10 feet long (not including its robotic arm), 9 feet wide, and 7 feet tall (about 3 meters long, 2.7 meters wide and 2.2 meters tall). At 2,260 lbs. (1,025 kilograms), Perseverance weighs less than a compact car.

Like Curiosity, Perseverance has a rectangular body, six wheels, a robotic arm, a drill for sampling rocks, cameras and scientific instruments. But those instruments are quite different than the gear aboard Curiosity, because the two rovers have divergent goals. Curiosity’s main task involves assessing the habitability of ancient Mars, whereas Perseverance will hunt for evidence of ancient Martians.

Perseverance’s seven instruments “build on the success of MSL, which was a proving ground for new technology,” said George Tahu, NASA’s Perseverance program executive. “These will gather science data in ways that weren’t possible before.”

(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Perseverance also used the same entry, descent and landing (EDL) strategy as Curiosity. Both rovers hit the Mars atmosphere at tremendous speeds, deployed a supersonic parachute after friction slowed them down enough, and were finally lowered gently to the red dirt on cables by a rocket-powered “sky crane.”

But Perseverance had some EDL upgrades that Curiosity did not enjoy. For example, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages the Mars 2020 mission, developed new landing technology called terrain-relative navigation. As the rover descended through the Martian skies, it used a computer to compare the landscape with pre-loaded terrain maps, guiding itself to a safe landing site and making corrections on the way down.

Another new feature, known as range trigger, used location and velocity information to determine when to open the supersonic parachute, narrowing the landing ellipse by more than half.

“Terrain-relative navigation enables us to go to sites that were ruled too risky for Curiosity to explore,” said JPL’s Al Chen, Perseverance’s EDL lead. “The ranger trigger lets us land closer to areas of scientific interest, shaving miles — potentially as much as a year — off a rover’s journey.”