Perseverance, NASA's Newest Mars Rover

Facts Worth Sharing

  • Perseverance is a NASA Mars rover that landed on 18 February 2021.
  • The rover will search for past life on Mars and collect soil and rock samples for future return to Earth.
  • Getting Perseverance's samples back to Earth will require at least two missions that are currently being planned by NASA and the European Space Agency.

Why 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, NASA's Curiosity rover found conditions on Mars around 4 billion years ago could have supported life as we know it. Now, Perseverance will directly search for signs of past life.

Perseverance launched on 30 July 2020 amidst the added challenge of the global COVID-19 pandemic. On 18 February 2021, it landed in Jezero crater, the site of an ancient lake and river delta. There, the rover will search for microbial fossils in rocks that formed in Mars’ warm, wet past. It will also look for carbon-containing molecules called organics that form the building blocks of life on Earth. 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 also collect soil and rock samples as it travels, and store them in tubes that future missions by NASA and the European Space Agency will collect. Despite 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; getting Perseverance’s samples back to Earth means we could run the same science experiments in multiple laboratories.

The mission is projected to cost $2.7 billion. The Planetary Society has additional context to help you fully understand this number.

Jezero Crater on Mars
Jezero Crater on Mars Jezero Crater is the landing site of NASA's Perseverance rover. In the center of this image captured by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, the remains of an ancient river delta are visible. On Earth similar deltas preserve a record of past life.Image: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin

How Perseverance Works

Perseverance is a 1-ton, 6-wheeled Mars rover the size of a compact car. Based on the same design as nuclear-powered Curiosity, Perseverance can operate through dust storms that block sunlight required by solar-powered spacecraft. To land, Perserverance improved upon the complex 7-minute landing sequence referred to as the “7 minutes of terror.” The landing involved a supersonic parachute, a thruster-powered descent, and nylon cords that lowered Perseverance the final few meters to the surface.

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. If a spot seems particularly interesting, Perseverance will collect a sample, seal it in a small tube, and leave the tube on the surface for 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 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. 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. The Planetary Society is an education and outreach partner for the instrument.

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. 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.

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.

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.

The Cost of Perseverance, in Context

Disney’s global box office revenue for Avengers. The amount of money Google makes in 6 days. The cost of NASA's Perseverance rover is less than you might think.

Perseverance Launches
Perseverance Launches NASA's Perseverance Mars rover blasts off atop an Atlas V rocket on 30 July 2020.Image: NASA/Joel Kowsky

How You Can Support Perseverance

Planetary Society co-founder Carl Sagan once said that when you’re in love, you want to tell the world. Space missions like the Perseverance are dependent upon sustained public enthusiasm from people like you. You know your audience best; we've got tools to help.

Tell the World

    Learn More

    Ready to take your next steps as a space advocate? Become a member and find out how you can take action in your community and government.

    Action Center

    Whether it's advocating, teaching, inspiring, or learning, you can do something for space, right now. Let's get to work.

    Perseverance in Recent Articles, Newsletters, and Podcasts

    New Details on the 2020 Mars Rover

    The 2020 Rover will achieve its cost-savings by using $200 million of existing hardware left over from the Curiosity mission, said the Director of the Planetary Science division within NASA.

    The 2020 Rover in Context

    The 2020 rover announced today is entirely consistent with NASA's reduced commitment to planetary exploration due to its 2013 budget.

    Rovers are awesome, but where's the science?

    Now that Casey has explained the budget implications of yesterday's 2020 rover announcement, and The Planetary Society has issued a formal statement, I thought it was time for me to talk briefly about science.

    < 1 ... 27 28