With each new generation of rovers, NASA has added new capabilities and a somewhat different instrument suite to answer important scientific questions. With the launch of Mars Perseverance, the fourth generation of Mars rovers, NASA will take forward this tradition.
What is unique about ‘Perseverance’?
- First, it will carry a unique instrument, MOXIE or Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment: which for the first time will manufacture molecular oxygen on Mars using carbon dioxide from the carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere. There is the new push for ISRU at NASA: in NASA jargon, ISRU means In Situ Resource Utilisation: or the use of local resources to meet human needs or requirements of the spacecraft. Without ISRU, exploration of Mars in the future decades will be incredibly expensive and thereby impossible. If astronauts have to carry oxygen or water or rocket fuel for their journey for a two-year journey to Mars and back, the cost will be understandably excessive. If oxygen can be successfully extracted on Mars in some significant scale, this can have two direct advantages: first, the oxygen can be used for human visitors to Mars, and second, the oxygen can be used to manufacture rocket fuel for the return journey. Thus, if the technology demonstration is successful, it would be of great use for a future human mission to Mars.
- Second, Perseverance will carry Ingenuity, the first ever helicopter to fly on Mars. This is the first time NASA will fly a helicopter on another planet or satellite. Like a drone on Earth, a Mars helicopter can help in rover drive planning and in fetching samples from locations that the rover cannot safely drive to. If this technology demonstration is successful, we will see a greater role for such helicopters in future missions.
- Third, Perseverance is the planned first step to bring back rock samples from Mars for analysis in sophisticated laboratories on Earth: with the goal of looking for biosignatures: or signatures of present or past life. Perseverance will collect samples and a second rover mission will fly within a decade to help transport the rock samples back to Earth.