The Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter are still some 13 million kilometers (8 million miles) away from Mars today, but that distance is closing fast as the mission heads for a landing a week from now on February 18th.
NASA has a full schedule to showcase the landing — and you can even ask questions of the mission team using social media: NASA TV schedule.
The Perseverance mission has come more than 450,000 kilometers, flying from Earth to Mars at a time when the two planets are at an optimal distance from each other. Track the spacecraft’s flight to Mars.
Two other spacecraft launched during that same window, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope and the Chinese Tianwen 1 missions. Hope successfully entered orbit around Mars on February 9th, and Tianwen 1 did the same one day later.
The Perseverance mission is heading for a landing in Jezero Crater, which scientists think was once flooded with water some 3.5 billion years ago. The rover will enable scientists to study the clay minerals that water once carried along the river and into the crater. More importantly, for the first time, NASA will seek not just water but signs of past life on Mars.
Biosignatures could come in many forms, but first the mission will have to asses the geological context of those markers. For example, if something is found in a rock, the team will first have to understand how and when that rock formed. Not only does the past environment have to habitable, but scientists must also be able to rule out other, abiotic ways of producing signatures that could masquerade as signs of life.
To that end, Perseverance carries seven scientific instruments. Of 23 cameras onboard, seven are part of instrument packages, while the others are used for entry, descent, and landing, as well as navigation on the ground. Other packages contain instruments to measure the weather, radar to penetrate the surface, and spectrometers to analyze rock samples. Perseverance will also collect samples for later retrieval.
Perseverance doesn’t ride alone. Ingenuity, a technology-demonstrating helicopter, will detach from the rover’s undercarriage to explore the surrounding area — and prove flight is possible within the Red Planet’s wisp of atmosphere.
Stay tuned for more detailed coverage of NASA’s final approach and landing!
Read a full preview of all three new missions at the Red Planet in Emily Lakdawalla’s “Three Missions Head for Mars.”