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Seven things you need to know about the Mars 2020 mission Prezbyrans

Expected to land on February 18, the Perseverance vehicle loaded with scientific instruments, advanced lander computing capabilities and other new systems will land on the Red Planet in the coming weeks. What is special about it?

The Perseverance vehicle, built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, is packed with scientific instruments, advanced landing computing capabilities and other new systems. With a shield that is about 3 meters long, Presbyrans is also the largest and heaviest robotic Mars rover that NASA has built. What drives his ambitious mission and what will he do on the Red Planet? Here are seven things to know about Presbyrans:

The preservation vehicle on Mars. Image: NASA
The preservation vehicle on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

1. The Perseverance vehicle embodies NASA's spirit of overcoming challenges.

Bringing the spacecraft to launch this summer required extensive effort. Concept studies and early technology work began a decade ago—years before the project was officially announced in December 2012. Landing on another planet, searching for signs of ancient life, collecting samples, and proving new technologies will also be difficult. These challenges are a typical example of why NASA chose the name Perseverance (Perseverance) out of the 28,000 essays submitted for the "Name the Vehicle" contest. The months leading up to the launch, in particular, required creative problem solving and teamwork during the coronavirus pandemic.

As Alex Mather of Lake Braddock High School in Burke, Virginia wrote in his winning essay: “We are a species of explorers, and we encounter many obstacles on the way to Mars. But we can persevere. We, not as a nation but as human beings, will not give up."

Comparison of NASA's all-terrain vehicles that have flown to Mars so far (including Preserver's which is on its way there). Photo: NASA/Caltech
A comparison of NASA's all-terrain vehicles that have flown to Mars so far (including Preserverance, which is on its way there). Photo: NASA/Caltech

2. Perseverance builds on the lessons learned from other Mars vehicles

NASA's first vehicle on Mars was modest: Sojourner, the size of a microwave oven, showed in 1997 that a robot could move around the red planet. NASA's next Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were both the size of a golf cart. After landing in 2004, they discovered evidence that the planet once had flowing water before it became a frozen desert. The car-sized rover Curiosity landed in 2012. Curiosity discovered that its landing site, Gale Crater, was a lake billions of years ago and an environment that could have supported microbial life. The goal of Presbyrans is to take the next step, to try, as a primary goal, to answer one of the key questions of astrobiology: Are there potential signs of past microbial life, or biological signatures, on Mars?

This demanding scientific goal requires a new suite of cutting-edge instruments to approach the question from several directions. The SHERLOC instrument (scanning environments adapted to life using Raman and X-rays to find organisms and chemicals), which can detect organic matter, and the PIXL (Planetary X-ray Lithochemistry Instrument), which measures the composition of rocks and soil, will allow Perspirence to map organic matter, chemical composition and texture together at a high level of detail More than all previous Mars rovers did. These instruments — two of seven that will be on board — will play a particularly important role in Persbyrans' search for potential signs of life on Mars.

Jezero Crater as photographed from the MRO satellite at a resolution of 10 meters. NASA / JPL / University of Arizona / Seán Doran
Jezero Crater as photographed from the MRO satellite at a resolution of 10 meters. NASA / JPL / University of Arizona / Seán Doran

Satellite image of Jezero CraterImage credit: NASA/JPL-CaltechFull image and caption

3. The vehicle will land in a place with great potential for finding Signs of microbial life Previously

Jezero Crater on Mars is a 45 km wide crater on the western edge of the Isidis Plain, a huge impact basin just north of the Martian equator. The crater may have been an oasis in the distant past.

3 to 4 billion years ago, there was a river that flowed into a body of water the size of Lake Tahoe, depositing sediments full of carbonaceous minerals and clay. Presbyrans' scientific team believes that the mouth of this ancient river may have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life.

A cliff rising above the bottom of the Jezero crater. Imaging: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A cliff rising above the bottom of the Jezero crater. Imaging: NASA/JPL-Caltech

4. Presbyrans will also collect important data on the geology and climate of Mars

Context is everything. The Mars Orbiters are collecting images and data from the Jezero Crater from a distance of about 322 km above, but finding signs of ancient life on the Martian surface requires examination from a much closer range. She needs a car like Presbyrans. Understanding the climate conditions that existed on Mars in the past and reading the geological history embedded in its rocks will give scientists a richer sense of the nature of the planet in the distant past. Investigating the geology and climate of the Red Planet can also give us a sense of why Earth and Mars—formed from the same Julian material—are so different today.

5. Presbyrans is the first segment of the round trip to Mars.

The verification of ancient life on Mars involves a huge burden of proof. Perseverance is the first vehicle to bring a sample disposal system to Mars that will package promising samples for return to Earth by a future mission. Instead of crushing rocks into dust as Curiosity's drill does, Presbyrance's drill will cut whole chalk-sized rock cores and put them in sample tubes that it will store until the vehicle arrives at a suitable drop-off location.

NASA and the European Space Agency are planning a campaign to return samples from Mars because here on Earth we can study the samples using instruments that are too large and complex to send to Mars. Testing these samples on Earth will provide far more information about them than even the most sophisticated vehicle could provide.

Simulation of a manned mission to Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Simulation of a manned mission to Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

6. Presbyrans carries devices and technologies that will pave the way for future human missions to the moon and Mars

One of the forward-looking technologies in the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission that will benefit humanity's exploration is the vehicle's relative-to-ground navigation system. The navigation system relative to the ground is part of the landing system and the main reason that Prezbyrans can explore such an interesting place as Jezero Crater. It will allow the vehicle to quickly and independently understand its place on the surface of Mars and change its course during descent. This technology could provide valuable assistance to robotic and manned missions that will land on the moon and is necessary for the future robotic and manned exploration of Mars.

The engineers also gave Prospirance more self-driving wisdom than any previous vehicle, which allows it to travel a greater distance on a day of activity without having to wait for instructions to be sent by the engineers from the country. Cumulatively throughout the mission, this fast pace translates into more science. This fast transit capability (thanks to improved sensors, computers and algorithms) will streamline the exploration of the Moon, Mars and other celestial bodies by other spacecraft as well.

Perseverance is also carrying out a technology demonstration - a proof-of-concept experiment - called MOXIE (Experiment in Utilization of Resources to Produce Oxygen on Mars). This device will produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars, and will demonstrate a way in which future researchers will be able to produce oxygen for both rocket propulsion and breathing.

The MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer) suite of instruments will also play an important role in future human exploration, providing information on the current weather and climate, as well as the nature of dust on the surface. The MEDLI2 (Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Lowering and Landing Instrument 2) package, the next-generation version of what flew on the Mars Science Laboratory mission that brought the Curiosity rover, will also aid human exploration and provide data on the spacecraft's entry and descent through the atmosphere.

7. You can join the journey

The Mars 2020 mission Prezbyrans carries more cameras than any other interstellar mission in the past. The Presbyrans vehicle itself has 19 cameras that will provide photographs of the landscape in breathtaking detail. The other parts of the spacecraft involved in entry, descent and landing carry four additional cameras, potentially allowing engineers to assemble an HD view of the landing process after the vehicle has landed safely on Mars. As with previous Mars missions, it is planned that raw and processed images of the Mars 2020 Persvirens mission will be available on the mission website.

In this spirit of public participation, the Persbirance vehicle carries a plate coated with the words "explore as one" in Morse code and three silicon chips with the names of the approximately 10.9 million people who have signed up to join the Persbirens mission to Mars.

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