NASA’s Sixth Most Expensive Robot Lands Successfully on Mars!

Perseverance being lowered onto Mars.

Perseverance being lowered onto Mars.

Luke Jones, Author

On July 30th, 2020, NASA launched their newest rover headed for our red-surfaced cosmic neighbor, Mars. And on February 18th, 2021, after nearly seven months sailing through space, the rover, dubbed Perseverance, or Percy for short, landed safely in Jezero Crater. Fun Fact: The name Perseverance was chosen through a K-12 short essay contest that got 28,000+ entries. The winner was a seventh grade student from Virginia named Alexander Manther.

The first image received by NASA from Perseverance.

This mission has been being planned for over a decade now, and has been built off the backs of the rovers that came before it, Pathfinder/Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. Perseverance has four primary goals for it’s lifespan, those being: Looking for places where life may have existed at some point. Looking for existing microbial life. Collecting soil and rock samples. And testing if oxygen can be made in Mars’ atmosphere. Percy is expected to clock in at 2.75 billion dollars over it’s life, making it the second most expensive rover on Mars, (Curiosity is likely to cost 3.2 billion dollars by the time it dies) and the sixth most expensive robot in NASA’s history!

Percy also carries a small helicopter-like drone, named Ingenuity, or Ginny for short, whose main purpose is to test if powered flight is even possible on Mars. If Ginny succeeds, it will go on to act as a scout for Percy, mapping out the terrain and creating possible routes for the rover. As of March 7th, Percy has traveled 70 meters, (230 feet).

The rover is powered by a decaying isotope of Plutonium-238 dioxide, measuring 11 pounds. The heat from the decay is converted into electricity, same as its predecessor, Curiosity.  Plutonium-238 dioxide has a half life of 87.7 years, but Percy is only expected to be able to last around 14 years, this is due to the isotope itself, as it decays it’ll produce less and less heat, in turn making less electricity. Solar panels were passed up because of their time constraints, the decaying isotope allows the rover to run at night and during dust storms, the ladder of which was the cause of the demise of the Opportunity rover back in June of 2018.

The location of Jezero Crater was chosen due to astronomers beliefs that it was once a water-filled lake, and that it could possibly provide evidence of at least microbial life that once existed on the surface of Mars. The crater is around 47 km (29.2 mi)  in diameter and about 2.5 km (1.55 mi) deep (I couldn’t find an actual number for depth so I based it off the elevation map below) We can actually almost say for certain that water once existed in liquid form on Mars, from it’s icy polar regions, the many obvious river channels and deltas, and to the smectite clays that were seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These types of clays are excellent for preserving signs of life, as seen here on Earth.

Looking down on Jezero Crater, you can see a river channel that would’ve carried water into Jezero (left), and where the overflow would’ve gone out. (top right)