It’s been a long road, but NASA’s Perseverance rover is ready for its trip to Mars. The agency packaged the robot up inside its payload fairing and attached it to an Atlas V rocket this week. Now, all we need is some favorable weather and the latest Mars explorer will be on its way to the red planet.
NASA delivered the rover to the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 on July 7th. Engineers lifted the payload to the top of the 129-foot (39-meter) Atlas V rocket, securing it physically and attaching the electronic connections. Thee connections will remain in place until about an hour after launch when the second-stage releases Perseverance on its way to Mars.
NASA has spent the last several years designing and building Perseverance, which is based on the hugely successful Curiosity rover. However, the engineering team incorporated some important lessons from NASA’s last Mars rover. For example, Curiosity’s wheels have taken a lot of damage from the unexpectedly pointy Martian rocks. So, Perseverance’s wheels have a stronger aluminum surface with springy titanium spokes.
The coronavirus pandemic has slowed progress on Perseverance, and there was some concern NASA might miss the launch window. Earth and Mars are only near each other every few (Earth) years, so a delay could have pushed the mission back to 2022. NASA was able to push the launch window out to August 15th from the original August 11th cutoff. That should provide enough time for final testing with plenty of time to get the rocket on the launchpad.
While the official launch date isn’t set, NASA has already chosen a landing date: February 18, 2021. Sticking to a specific landing date helps mission managers plan for specific conditions like surface lighting and the position of satellites. Perseverance will land in Jezero Crater, which was chosen because it was likely a lake in the planet’s distant past. Jezero Crater has ancient layers of clay, a river delta, and even volcanic debris. It’s really the ideal location for Perseverance to study the geological history of the planet while it looks for signs of life.
Perseverance will also carry the Mars Helicopter drone — NASA hopes this robot will be able to scope out the terrain and save Perseverance some time. However, it’s officially just a technology demonstration. The rover also has a sample storage system that will package materials up for possible collection and return to Earth by a future mission.