NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has a long-term, systematic exploration plan for the Red Planet. Mars missions build on each other, with discoveries and innovations made by prior missions guiding what comes next. Mars missions are guided by evolving, discovery-driven science strategies that provide continuity in Mars science exploration themes.

The science strategy for the program is to seek signs of life. The Mars 2020 mission’s Perseverance rover contributes to this strategy as well as to the program’s four long-term science goals.

Goal 1: Determine Whether Life Ever Existed on Mars

The mission of the Perseverance rover focuses on surface-based studies of the Martian environment, seeking preserved signs of biosignatures in rock samples that formed in ancient Martian environments with conditions that might have been favorable to microbial life. It is the first rover mission designed to seek signs of past microbial life.

Perseverance will explore a site likely to have been habitable. It will seek signs of past life, set aside a returnable cache with the most compelling rock core and soil samples, and demonstrate technology needed for the future human and robotic exploration of Mars. Leveraging discoveries from past Mars missions about water and habitability on Mars, Perseverance represents a shift toward directly seeking signs of past microbial life.

Goal 2: Characterize the Climate of Mars

Past Martian climate conditions are a focus of Perseverance’s mission. The rover’s instruments are looking for evidence of ancient habitable environments where microbial life could have existed in the past.

Goal 3: Characterize the Geology of Mars

The SHERLOC instrument is located at the end of the robotic arm on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. SHERLOC (short for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) is a spectrometer that will provide fine-scale imaging and use an ultraviolet laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Perseverance is designed to study the rock record to reveal more about the geologic processes that created and modified the Martian crust and surface through time. Each layer of rock on the Martian surface contains a record of the environment in which it was formed. The rover seeks evidence of rocks that formed in water and that preserve evidence of organics, the chemical building blocks of life.

The rover will investigate a region of Mars where the ancient environment may have been favorable for microbial life. Throughout its investigation, it will collect samples of soil and rock and cache them on the surface for potential return to Earth by a future mission. Science instruments will be used to analyze the chemical, mineral, physical, and organic characteristics of Martian rocks.

Goal 4: Prepare for Human Exploration

The rover will demonstrate key technologies for using natural resources in the Martian environment for life support and fuel. It will also monitor environmental conditions, so mission planners understand better how to protect future human explorers. The mission also provides opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars. These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.

Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) is loaded into the chassis of Perseverance. MOXIE will demonstrate a way that future explorers might produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing. MOXIE does this by collecting carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and electrochemically splitting the carbon dioxide molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide molecules. The oxygen is then analyzed for purity before being vented back out to the Martian atmosphere along with the carbon monoxide and other exhaust products. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Science Instruments

The science instruments on Perseverance are state-of-the-art tools for acquiring information about Martian geology, atmosphere, environmental conditions, and potential biosignatures.

Mastcam-Z — This pair of cameras takes color images and video, three-dimensional stereo images, and has a powerful zoom lens. Like the Mastcam cameras on Curiosity, Mastcam-Z consists of two duplicate camera systems mounted on the mast that stands up from the rover deck. The cameras are next to each other and point in the same direction, providing a 3D view similar to what human eyes would see — but better. They also have a zoom function to see details of faraway targets.

MEDA — The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) makes weather measurements including wind speed and direction, temperature, and humidity and also measures the amount and size of dust particles in the Martian atmosphere. Sensors are located on the rover’s mast and on the deck, front, and interior of the rover’s body.

MOXIE — Carbon dioxide makes up about 96% of the gas in Mars’ atmosphere. Oxygen is only 0.13%, compared to 21% in Earth’s atmosphere. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) will demonstrate a way that future explorers might produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing. The car-battery-sized instrument collects carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and electrochemically splits the carbon dioxide molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide molecules. The oxygen is then analyzed for purity before being vented back out to the Martian atmosphere along with the carbon monoxide and other exhaust products.

PIXL — The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) uses X-ray fluorescence to identify chemical elements in target spots as small as a grain of table salt. It has a Micro-Context Camera to provide images to correlate its elemental composition maps with visible characteristics of the target area.

RIMFAX — The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) uses ground-penetrating radar waves to probe the surface under the rover. It can detect ice, water, or salty brines more than 30 feet (10 meters) beneath the surface, depending on materials. It is the first radar tool sent to the surface of Mars on a NASA mission.

SHERLOC — Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals’ (SHERLOC) main tools are spectrometers and a laser but it also uses a macro camera to take extreme closeups of the areas that are studied. This provides context so scientists can see textures that might help tell the story of the environment in which the rock formed. Mounted on the rover’s robotic arm, SHERLOC uses spectrometers, a laser, and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life.

SuperCam — The SuperCam on Perseverance examines rocks and soil with a camera, laser, and spectrometers to seek organic compounds that could be related to past life on Mars. It can identify the chemical and mineral makeup of targets as small as a pencil point from a distance of more than 20 feet (7 meters). SuperCam fires a laser at mineral targets that are beyond the reach of the rover’s robotic arm and then analyzes the vaporized rock to reveal its elemental composition. Like the ChemCam on Curiosity, SuperCam fires laser pulses at pinpoint areas and its camera and spectrometers then examine the rock’s chemistry. When the laser hits the rock, it creates plasma, which is an extremely hot gas made of free-floating ions and electrons. An onboard spectrograph records the spectrum of the plasma, which reveals the composition of the material.

WATSON — Essentially SHERLOC’s second eye, the Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering (WATSON) is a near-field-to-infinity imaging component. WATSON is a build-to-print camera based on Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Integration is enabled by existing electronics within SHERLOC. On the arm of the turret on Perseverance’s robotic arm, WATSON captures the larger-context images for the very detailed information that SHERLOC collects on Martian mineral targets. Since WATSON can be moved around on the robotic arm, it also provides other images of rover parts and geological targets that can be used by other arm-mounted instruments; for example, it can be pointed at MOXIE to help monitor how much dust accumulates around the inlet that lets in Martian air for the extraction of oxygen.


Mars 2020 Science Goals

Sample Collection

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This article first appeared in the June, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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