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At a Glance

Why do we need Perseverance? 

Did life ever arise on Mars? For years, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has been systematically trying to find out. The agency’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers showed that liquid water once existed on the surface. Building on that discovery, the Curiosity rover found conditions on Mars 4 billion years ago were benign for life as we know it. Now, Perseverance will directly search for signs of past life.

Perseverance launches from Earth in July 2020. On 18 February 2021, it will land in Jezero crater, the site of an ancient lake and river delta. There, the rover will study rocks that formed in Mars’ warm, wet past for signs of ancient microbial life. Perseverance will also collect soil and rock samples and leave them on the surface for collection by a future Earth return mission.  

Not since 1976 has NASA directly searched for life on Mars, when the dual Viking landers performed long-shot chemistry experiments that turned up inconclusive results. Perseverance will look for microscopic, fossilized cells, as well as carbon-containing molecules called organics that form the building blocks of all living things on Earth. 

Curiosity's tracks across Dingo Gap

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / Doug Ellison

Curiosity's tracks across Dingo Gap
The Curiosity rover left wheel tracks across the dune at Dingo Gap on sol 538.

Even if Perseverance sees something that looks like an ancient microbe, or finds an organic compound that’s a perfect match for something related to life as we know it, we won’t be able to declare with certainty that we’ve found life on Mars. To do that, we’ll need to bring Perseverance’s samples back to Earth. Despite our technological advances in making small, low-power science instruments for space missions, many types of laboratory analyses still can’t be performed in space or can’t be done very precisely. Additionally, science is all about being able to reproduce results—especially when they are astonishing. Getting Perseverance’s samples back to Earth means we could run the same science experiments in multiple laboratories.

Microphones on Mars

Perseverance has 2 microphones that will record the first-ever sounds from Mars as the rover lands and performs some of its duties. The concept dates back to 1996, when Planetary Society co-founder Carl Sagan first approached NASA with the idea. Two years later, a Planetary Society-funded microphone launched aboard NASA’s Mars Polar Lander, marking the world’s first crowdfunded science instrument to fly to another planet. Sadly, the lander crashed.

You can learn more here, including what Perseverance’s microphones will hear and what humans might sound like on Mars.

How will Perseverance search for life on Mars?

Perseverance is a 1-ton, 6-wheeled science rover, about the size of a compact car. Based on the same design as NASA’s Curiosity rover, it is nuclear-powered, allowing its power-hungry instruments to operate through dust storms that block the sunlight required for spacecraft with solar panels. 

Using images from navigation cameras placed strategically around the rover, as well as imagery from orbital satellites such as NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists and mission operators will work together to drive Perseverance to promising science areas around the river delta in Jezero Crater. If a spot seems particularly interesting, Perseverance will collect a rock and soil sample, seal it in a small tube, and leave the tube on the surface for a future mission to return to Earth.

At the heart of Perseverance’s life-scanning tools are 2 Raman spectrometers—science instruments that shine ultraviolet light on a rock or soil patch and read the reflected light signature to determine what chemical compounds are present. Raman spectrometers are particularly well-suited to detecting organic compounds related to life as we know it. Perseverance has one on its robotic arm named SHERLOC, and another inside SuperCam, an instrument at the top of the rover’s mast that also contains a laser to zap rocks several meters away!

Perseverance will also look for signs of microscopic life using PIXL, a camera mounted to its robotic arm that can see features as small as a grain of salt. On Earth, we’ve found microscopic bacteria fossils in rocks more than 3.5 billion years old.

How will Perseverance land on Mars?

Perseverance can’t do any of its exciting science unless it lands on Mars safely. Just like its predecessor, Curiosity, Perseverance must execute a complex 7-minute landing sequence referred to as the “7 minutes of terror.” The landing involves a supersonic parachute, a thruster-powered descent, and nylon cords that lower Perseverance the final few meters to the surface. 

Location of Jezero Crater Mars 2020 landing site, Mars

ISRO / ISSDC / Emily Lakdawalla

Location of Jezero Crater Mars 2020 landing site, Mars
Jezero crater lies within the yellow circle near the center of this image (the crater itself is not visible in this global view, which was taken by Mars Orbiter Mission on 7 October 2014). InSight and Curiosity landing sites are near the edge of the disk on the right; no other successful landing sites are visible in this view.
Perseverance rover landing ellipse in Jezero crater

ESA / DLR / FU Berlin / Emily Lakdawalla

Perseverance rover landing ellipse in Jezero crater
Jezero crater is 45 kilometers in diameter. The Perseverance rover landing site will be on the flat floor of the crater, just east of a dramatic ancient river delta.

None of Perseverance’s discoveries would make sense without other science instruments to place discoveries in the proper context; particularly Mastcam-Z, two zoomable color cameras atop the rover’s mast that serve as its eyes. Mastcam-Z will produce stunning, 3D images that help scientists understand the geology of Jezero crater and plan for future rover drives. 

At the rover’s lower-rear is RIMFAX, a radar that can detect pockets of water up to 10 meters beneath the surface. Scientists suspect that some of Mars’ ancient water seeped underground, where it could still host living organisms. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft found evidence for subsurface water using radar from orbit, but this will be the first time a rover has searched from the ground. (China’s Tianwen-1 rover also has a radar instrument; it will launch to Mars around the same time.)

Also aboard Perseverance is a weather station called MEDA, as well as MOXIE, a car battery-size device that will extract carbon dioxide from Mars’ atmosphere and produce oxygen, just like a tree on Earth. MOXIE will demonstrate the feasibility of manufacturing oxygen on Mars for future astronauts to breathe and use as rocket fuel.

The Mars helicopter

Tucked beneath Perseverance’s belly is a small helicopter drone named Ingenuity. Once on Mars, Perseverance will lower Ingenuity to the surface and move 100 meters away. After engineers on Earth perform extensive system checks, Ingenuity will explore the rover’s surroundings during a 30-day flight test campaign. 

As a technology demonstration, Ingenuity is not tied to Perseverance’s mission success, but we may learn important lessons about the feasibility of flying vehicles on other worlds. In 2034, NASA’s Dragonfly spacecraft, an 8-bladed drone-like craft called a quadcopter, will explore Saturn’s largest moon Titan.

Mars Helicopter Artist's Concept

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Mars Helicopter Artist's Concept
An artist's concept of the Mars Helicopter.

How you can support the Perseverance mission

Getting Perseverance’s samples back to Earth will be the most ambitious Mars mission in history and require sustained public support to succeed. Visit our Mars Sample Return mission page to learn what it will take to make this happen, and sign up for our Space Advocate newsletter to get alerted when we have specific actions you can take. Want to learn the inner works of NASA, how Congress develops space legislation, and how to engage with your elected officials? Our free Space Advocacy 101 course can help.

You can follow the excitement of the Perseverance mission by signing up for The Downlink, our weekly toolkit that contains news, announcements, and actions you can take to support space science and exploration. We couldn’t do any of this work without support from our members—consider joining today!

Finally, the world’s space agencies have sent dozens of missions to Mars over the years, resulting in a wealth of beautiful images that can be found in our space image library. Share those images and this page widely to help others get excited about Perseverance and build public support for future Mars missions.

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