NASA is launching its $2.4 billion Perseverance Mars rover on Thursday. The nuclear-powered robot will test technologies astronauts need on the red planet.

NASA/JPL-CaltechAn artist’s rendering of NASA’s Perseverance rover.

NASA is gearing up to launch its next Mars rover: an SUV-sized,nuclear-powered robot decked out in cutting-edge equipment.

Perseverance, the fifth rover the US has sent to Mars, is set to complete tasks that the previous robots could only dream of. The $US2.4 billion vehicle is designed to collect unprecedented video and audio, drill samples of Martian rock and soil for later return to Earth, search for chemical remnants of ancient microbial life, and test out technologies that future astronauts will need on the red planet.

Mars rover perseverance rocket atlas v launchNASA/KSCNASA’s Mars Perseverance rover waits to be lifted onto its Atlas V launch vehicle in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 7, 2020.

The rover is scheduled to launch at 7:50 a.m. ET on July 30, atop an Atlas V rocket.

Its seven-month, 314-million-mile (505-million-kilometre) journey to Mars is slated to end in the Jezero Crater – one of the largest impact craters on Mars. A giant jetpack is built in to lower Perseverance onto the site, where some of the planet’s oldest rock is laid bare.

Here’s how the mission will work.

Martian rock samples could contain evidence of alien life

Mars rover sample return mission perseveranceNASA/JPL-CaltechAn illustration of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover using its drill to core a rock sample.

Perseverance’s mission calls for it to mine Jezero Crater’s ancient rock for chemical signatures of ancient alien life. Rocks that formed in water, for example, could have preserved the remains of chemicals that only life can create. Such rocks may be plentiful in the Jezero Crater exposed layers.

A special arm of the robot is designed to drill cores from those rocks and cache them on the planet’s surface.

Mars perseverance rover sample return collection cacheNASA/JPL-CaltechAn illustration shows how the Perseverance rover will store rock and soil samples in sealed tubes on Mars’s surface for future missions to retrieve.

“Samples from Mars have the potential to profoundly change our understanding of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system,” Lori Glaze, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a briefing on July 17.

NASA/JPL-CaltechAn artist’s concept shows a proposed NASA mission launching a sample from Mars toward Earth.

NASA plans to launch another rover to retrieve those samples in 2026. The fetch rover would collect the tubes and carry them to a rocket, which would then launch them into Mars’s orbit. There, a spacecraft circling the planet would catch the samples and carry them back to Earth.

“If it sounds complicated – it is,” Glaze said.

But this rover has more immediate, straightforward goals, too.

The first interplanetary helicopter will drop from the rover’s belly

Mars ingenuity helicopter perseverance rover deliveryLMSAn engineer observes a test of the Mars Helicopter Delivery System at Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, Colorado, in April 2019.

About two months after it lands, Perseverance is set to drop a small helicopter from its belly.

NASA has programmed the helicopter, named Ingenuity, to demonstrate the first powered flight ever conducted on another planet.

If successful, four carbon-fibre blades will spin eight times as fast as a standard helicopter on Earth, lifting Ingenuity off the ground and carrying it through the thin Martian atmosphere.

Ingenuity weighs just 4 pounds, since the Martian air is just 1% of the density of Earth’s atmosphere.

Perseverance will beam back high-def video of a Mars landing

NASA/JPL-CaltechEngineers install the SuperCam instrument on the Perseverance rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, June 25, 2019.

For the first time, NASA plans to film the entire landing of a Mars rover in high definition.

“Those cameras will be taking high-definition video of the spacecraft during entry, descent, and landing activity. So we should be able to watch this big parachute inflate supersonically, we should be able to watch the rover deploy and touch down on the surface,” Matt Wallace, the deputy project manager for Perseverance, said in the briefing. “This is going to be very exciting. It’s the first time that we have ever been able to see a spacecraft landing on another planet.”

The rover’s 3D cameras can also take high-definition photos and high-speed video as it roams the Martian surface. Two cameras on the mast are programmed to identify rocks and soil for the rover’s other instruments to investigate or collect and stow. The cameras should also help scientists observe details in Martian rock and sediment.

Perseverance will carry microphones as well. If the devices work, they will enable NASA to record the first bonafide audio of Mars, including gusts of wind, the rover’s wheels rolling over soil and rocks, the sounds of drilling, and more.

Previous Mars missions also brought microphones with them, but as Nancy Atkinson wrote for The Planetary Society, those were a “huge let-down” – they either failed or never activated.

Perseverance will test technologies to keep astronauts alive to Mars

JPL/NASAAn artist’s concept of human habitats on Mars.

NASA ultimately aims to send astronauts to Mars and set up a settlement there. (Elon Musk, who is developing a spaceship that might be able to carry people to the red planet, hopes to put boots there in 2024.)

But NASA first needs to figure out how to meet the needs of any future Mars-dwelling people: oxygen, food, water, and fuel.

Perseverance will help the agency test some options. One of the rover’s projects, called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), will attempt to convert Martian carbon dioxide into oxygen that future astronauts could breathe.

Mars perseverance rover moxie installation jet propulsion laboratory nasaNASA/JPL-CaltechWorkers install the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) into the chassis of the Perseverance Mars rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, March 20, 2019.

About 95% of the red planet’s atmosphere is CO2, so successfully converting it to oxygen would be a big win for future Martian settlements. Abundant oxygen would also help astronauts produce new rocket fuel for the journey home.

Five small pieces of spacesuit material, including a piece of helmet visor, will also travel to Mars aboard the rover. One of the robot’s instrument will track the materials’ reaction to the Martian environment, to inform future Mars-spacesuit designers.

The rover will also collect data that could help scientists better predict Martian weather – an ability that will be crucial to survival on the planet’s harsh surface.

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