NASA Mission to Look for Past Life on Mars Still on Track, Despite Coronavirus

Artist concept of the rover Perseverance (background) and the experimental Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity. The mission is scheduled to land on Mars in February 2021.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

While most of us have been in shelter-at-home mode, Perseverance, NASA's next-generation Mars rover, has been getting ready for a major trip. In February, it packed its bags, so to speak, and moved from its "nest" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California, to a "clean room" at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. An experimental Mars Helicopter went, too.

Wrapped up and awaiting loading into its travel crate, the Mars rover Perseverance (back and left) is prepared to leave its birthplace in the JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility clean room for a flight to its launch point at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Krys Blackwood)

JPL and NASA team engineers are working on the final steps of assembly and testing for the rover and helicopter, which are scheduled to launch in July. Their mission? To seek out signs of past life on Mars and pioneer flying there!

Mounting a Mars Mission During Quarantine

Facing a critical launch window that begins on July 17 and ends Aug. 5, NASA and JPL have taken extraordinary pains to keep the mission on track, while maintaining social distancing practices to keep employees and the public safe.

Following its trip from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida in February, the rover Perseverance and the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity are off-loaded from their C-17 cargo transport. (NASA/Cory Huston)

If the launch is delayed beyond Aug. 5, the next opportunity to send the rover to Mars is almost two years away. That's because Earth and Mars only pass close enough for us to send spacecraft every 22 months.

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The rover Curiosity, currently exploring Mars, is operated by team members who can conduct most of its mission remotely from home.

Perseverance, however, requires a lot of hands-on attention as it is prepared for launch. Some of that work can be done remotely, like analyzing data from engineering tests. But much of it must be done in-person. There's the mission-critical job of "stacking" the spacecraft modules — connecting the rover to its rocket-propelled landing crane, sandwiching the assembly between its aeroshell and back shell enclosure, and sticking all that on top of the interplanetary cruise stage that will carry the rover to Mars.

In March and April, the task of assembling -- or "stacking" -- the components of the Mars 2020 spacecraft proceeded in a clean room at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Shown in this picture is the rover Perseverance and it's belly-mounted Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, attached under its rocket-powered descent stage (shown by its orange rocket nozzles), all under the umbrella of its back shell. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Fortunately, NASA engineers are used to working in "clean rooms," with protective clothing, masks and rigorous sterilization standards —all designed to keep Mars free from contamination by any of Earth's microbes.

Seeking Signs of Life

Perseverance, and its companion helicopter Ingenuity, are bound for the once water-filled Jezero Crater, a little north of the Martian equator,  in search of chemical and geologic evidence of ancient Martian microbial life.

Composite image of the section of Jezero Crater that NASA's Mars 2020 rover will begin exploring in 2021. In the center of this image is an alluvial fan of material washed in from a river inlet (left) and deposited on the floor of an ancient lake. Mineral measurements of the materials in this delta deposit show the presence of clay and carbonates, possible evidence of past Martian life. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL)

Mission planners chose Jezero Crater not only because it was likely once filled with water (“jezero” means “lake” in several Slavic languages), but also because it is on the edge of what was probably a wide sea sometime in the past. Of particular interest is a dry river inlet and alluvial fan of material washed into the lake bottom at the western edge of the crater.

Dry river deltas are great places to prospect, especially for evidence of past life in lake sediment or materials washed in from land upstream. Scientists think if microbial Martian life ever existed, it most likely thrived in water.

Perseverance will use high-resolution cameras, and X-ray and ultraviolet spectrometers, to analyze chemical compositions, and a ground-penetrating radar to probe geologic structures in the ground beneath it. The rover will collect rock and soil samples with its drill for analysis by onboard instruments. And, it will cache samples in sealed tubes to leave along the trail for future missions to potentially bring back to Earth.

Perseverance and Ingenuity: What's In a Name?

The naming of Martian rovers follows a student essay tradition that began in 1997 with the very first rover named:  Sojourner!

This time, seventh grader Alexander Mather from Burke, Virginia, wrote an essay that beat eight other finalists and over 28,000 submissions from across the country. Alexander said he chose Perseverance because names given to previous Mars rovers reflect human qualities important in the enterprise of space exploration — and his choice, perseverance, acknowledges the unrelenting difficulties encountered by all missions to Mars.

A NASA Mars Helicopter team member works on the flight model of the experimental craft in February 2019. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Among the nine finalists, a second name rose to the top: Ingenuity. Submitted by 11th grader Vaneeza Rupani of Northport, Alabama, Ingenuity became the name of Perseverance's flying companion, the Mars Helicopter.

Ingenuity is going to Mars as a proof of concept. The tiny, double-propellored craft will make one or more 90-second test flights that mission planners hope will open the door to a variety of uses in future missions. Ingenuity carries two small cameras, one of them color, to take pictures with during flight.

When asked why she thought Ingenuity was a good name for the helicopter, Vaneeza cited the creativity that engineers needed to design a craft that can fly in the extremely thin and cold Martian atmosphere, something that has never been done before.

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If all goes well, sometime in the second half of July, or early August, Perseverance and Ingenuity will launch from Florida and begin a nine-month voyage to Mars. Once they touch down safely, Perseverance will do the job of looking for past life, and Ingenuity will become the first craft to take flight on another planet.