WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) — NASA is dispatching a six-wheeled rover to Mars, where scientists hope it will collect rock samples that will be brought back to Earth for analysis in about a decade.
The rover, named “Perseverance”, is NASA’s most ambitious Mars mission yet, totalling around $3 billion.
Engineers recently attached NASA’s Perseverance rover to the top of its Atlas V rocket, a promising sign after yet another delay.
The Mars-bound rover is now encased in the nose cone that will protect it during launch. Scientists are now conducting final testing on both the spacecraft and its booster.
Managers are now targeting no earlier than July 30 for a liftoff from Cape Canaveral, eating up half of the monthlong launch window.
The six-wheeled, car-sized Perseverance rover will hunt for Martian rocks containing biological signatures, if they exist.
It will drill into the most promising rocks and store a half-kilogram (about one pound) of samples in dozens of titanium tubes that will eventually be fetched by another rover.
Perseverance will collect rock and soil samples and deposit them in pen-sized tubes across the Martian surface.
Aside from gathering samples, Perseverance is equipped with a number of science instruments to search for signs of past Martian life.
“We’re gonna get an up-close and personal view of whether there are organics in the rocks of Mars and we’re going to get an up-close and personal view of the lake sediments at Jezero Crater,” says Dr. Bethany Ehlmann, a research scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “So, we’re gonna get an amazing view into the first billion, billion and a half years of Mars history.”
The spacecraft will travel more than 300 million miles (483 million kilometers) before reaching Mars next February.
It takes six to seven months, at the minimum, for a spacecraft to loop out beyond Earth’s orbit and sync up with Mars’ more distant orbit around the sun.
Perseverance is set to touch down in an ancient river delta and lake, known as Jezero Crater, not quite as big as Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.
Jezero Crater is full of boulders, cliffs, sand dunes and depressions, any one of which could end Perseverance’s mission.
But Jezero Crater is worth the risks, according to scientists who chose it over 60 other potential sites.
Where there was water — and Jezero was apparently flush with it 3.5 billion years ago — there may have been life, though it was probably only simple microbial life, existing perhaps in a slimy film at the bottom of the crater.
Only the U.S. has successfully put a spacecraft on Mars, doing it eight times, beginning with the twin Vikings in 1976. Two NASA landers are now operating there, InSight and Curiosity.
Six other spacecraft are exploring the planet from orbit: three U.S., two European and one from India.