ALL ABOUT THE ROVER
Perseverance, or Percy, is NASA's fifth rover on Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun. Percy was based on the design of Curiosity, another rover that has been on Mars since late 2012. It has some improvements over Curiosity, and also a different mission. Although controlled and paid for by NASA, Percy has parts from Spain, Norway, and many other parts of the world!
Percy has 7 instruments on-board, but NASA considered over 60. He has a PIXL, which is a spectrometer that is used to determine the elemental composition of Mars' surface. He also has a RIMFAX, which is a radar system capable of penetrating the ground. RIMFAX is used to detect and image different ground densities, meteorites, structural layers, water and ice, brine, and buried rocks.
Percy has a MEDA, which allows him to measure temperature, wind (both direction and speed), radiation, humidity, pressure, and both the size and shape of dust particles. He has a technology called MOXIE, which allows him to turn carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into breathable oxygen. It is hoped that MOXIE can be scaled up enough for human inhabitation, and possibly rocket fuel for the way back home.
He has many more gadgets, including things that allow him to detect biosignatures, provide imaging and chemical composition analysis of the surface, collect samples, 19 cameras, and 2 microphones. This means he has the first ever working microphone on Mars. He also carries a mini-helicopter named Ingenuity, or Ginny, which will attempt the first powered flight on a planet other than Earth.
WHAT IS HE DOING?
Together, Percy and Ginny make up the main components of Mars 2020, the third of three missions sent to Mars during the launch window that opened in July 2020. The other two were by the United Arab Emirates (Emirates Mars Mission) and China (Tianwen-1). Both sent orbiters, with China also sending a rover and lander.
Percy has 4 main goals. During his time on Mars, he will look for places that were capable of supporting microorganisms. He will also look for signatures from those microorganisms in those places. He also takes samples of rock and soil to store for human arrival on the surface. His last objective is to prepare for humans. This is done by using MOXIE technology, described above.
Ginny also has a few things to do. The tiny 4 pound drone will attempt to do the first powered flight on any planet other than Earth. It carries nothing but a camera, and it has to test flight stability on Mars. It will also scout routes for Percy. It will only be in operation for 30 sols (a Mars day, 1 sol is 1.028 Earth days), assuming it survives the first few nights, which can reach temperatures of -130° Fahrenheit.
HOW IT WENT
The signal from the cameras and sensors on Percy take 11 minutes to reach Earth. This means he landed and we celebrated 11 minutes later. His 7 months in space ended with the most accurate landing in Martian history.
He landed at the Jezero crater, a crater thought to be a lake, and spanning over 720 square miles. Percy landed just 0.6 miles southeast of the crater's center.
Percy approached Mars at over 12,000 miles per hour (nearly Mach 16). When he got inside the Martian atmosphere, drag slowed him to just shy of 1,000 miles per hour. He then deployed a parachute, bringing him to around 200. To soften his landing, he used thrusters to slow the fall even more, resulting in a safe landing.
WHAT IS THE BIG FUSS?
Sure, all of this sounds great, but is it really worth $2.75 billion? Yes, it is. Percy is our best bet at learning about Mars before we send any of our own to the surface. Mars is 135.25 million miles from Earth. The farthest we've been is 248,655 miles. That's just 1/541 of the way there. We can't afford to send anyone that far without sufficient knowledge.
With the help of Perseverance, Mars is habitable. Percy is able to convert the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into breathable oxygen and also scout for locations. Every dollar spent is worth it.
Percy also is trying to determine whether we are alone. If he ends up finding signs of microbial life, that hugely increases (the already very large chance) that there is other intelligent life in the universe. And wouldn't it be great to inhabit two planets when we meet those (hopefully friendly) aliens?