Mars 2020 Has Now Launched!


Mars 2020 is a new space mission searching for signs of past life on Mars and preparing for future human exploration of the Red Planet. On July 30th at 7:50 a.m. EDT, Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover, together with Ingenuity Helicopter, lifted off aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

After a seven-month interplanetary journey, it will land on the surface of Mars’ Jezero Crater on February 18th 2021, with a multi-goal mission: determine if Mars ever supported life, understand the process and history of climate on Mars, discover the origin and evolution of the Red Planet as a geological system, and prepare for future human exploration.

To fulfil these goals, the rover is equipped with seven scientific instruments, twenty-three cameras and two microphones. “Mastcam-Z will be the main eyes of NASA’s rover,” said Jim Bell, Principal Investigator of the Mastcam-Z. It is a camera system with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging to determine the mineralogy of the red planet and assist with rover operations. Scientists will use the camera to search for signs of ancient lakes, streams and other water-related features.

“MEDA will help prepare for human exploration by providing daily weather report and information on the radiation and wind patterns on Mars,” said Jose A. Rodriguez Manfredi, Principal Investigator of the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA). Equipped with a set of sensors, the instrument will provide weather measurements on temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape. These data will help scientists make accurate weather predictions to assist astronauts during future missions. MEDA will also help put into perspective possible findings of ancient life, by measuring radiation from the sun and space which could alter traces of any past life in Mars’ rocks.

MOXIE, a technology demonstration, will produce oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide, which makes up to 96% of the gas in the Martian atmosphere, while oxygen is only 0.13% – compared to 21% in Earth’s atmosphere. If successful, MOXIE’s technology could be used by future astronauts on Mars to burn rocket fuel for returning to Earth and for breathing.

PIXL, an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and high-resolution imager, will be used to map the fine-scale elemental composition of Mars’ soil, seeking changes in textures and chemicals in rocks and soil left behind by any ancient microbial life. It can detect over 20 chemical “fingerprints” even when the amount is only a few part per million. “If you are looking for signs of ancient life, you want to look at a small scale and get detailed information about chemical elements present,” said Abigail Allwood, Principal Investigator.

RIMFAX, a first on Mars, is a penetrating radar that will provide centimetre-scale resolution of the geological structure of the subsurface, up to 10 meters beneath the surface of Mars, searching for ice, water or salty brines.

SHERLOC will use 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. SHERLOC also carries small pieces of spacesuit material to test how they hold up in the harsh Martian environment.

SuperCam will provide imaging, chemical composition analysis and mineralogy at a distance. It will be able to identify the chemical and mineral makeup of targets as small as a pencil point from a distance of more than 20 feet (7 meters). For the benefit of future explorers, SuperCam will also identify which elements in the Martian dust may be harmful to humans.

Perseverance will also gather interesting rocks and soil samples in tubes that could be returned to Earth on a future NASA mission. This is yet to be developed, but is a potential collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).

Ingenuity Helicopter

Ingenuity Helicopter is a small, autonomous aircraft that will be carried to Mars attached to the belly of the Perseverance Rover. It is not designed to support the mission’s objective on the planet, but it will perform for the first time a powered flight in the thin Martian air. Even if Mars’ gravity is one-third of Earth’s, its atmosphere is 99% less dense than our planet, hence it is not simple to generate lift. Ingenuity will operate autonomously, using solar power to charge its batteries and relying on internal heaters to maintain operational temperatures during the cold Martian nights. Its performance will help scientists decide on a possible future Mars mission, by assisting rovers performing terrain surveys from above.

The Mars 2020 mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort to understand the early evolution of Mars, its geological history, the possibility that it once hosted life, and future exploration by humans.

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I am a Italian Physicist who crossed the English Channel to pursue a PhD in Engineering. During this journey, I brought along with me my love for reading, for science, philosophy and my fascination for travel, which you will find scattered throughout my articles. You can follow me on Instagram as @physicist_rick

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