ORLANDO, Fla., May 19 (UPI) -- NASA expects to meet a crucial deadline to launch Mars rover Perseverance in July as technicians and engineers work under tight restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The rover launch is one of few NASA missions to remain fully operational during the global health crisis.
Launch is planned for 9 a.m. EDT July 17 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V rocket, which would have the rover landing in Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18.
The mission could launch as late as Aug. 5 and still make it to Mars as the Red Planet is in its so-called close approach to Earth. After that, Mars would be too far from Earth for the mission and NASA would have to wait two years for Mars to get near again.
"We've been waiting since the 1970s to do this, and we are at a point where this can be done, so we should get it done," said Raymond Arvidson, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He has been involved in every Mars mission since Viking landed on Mars in 1976.
"We've found that conditions to support life did exist on Mars, and this mission may help us prove if it did exist," Arvidson said. Previous missions proved that water once flowed on Mars and detected organic compounds that are considered building blocks for life.
The Perseverance rover will drill into rock and collect samples at crucial locations on Mars, where scientists found evidence of ancient river deltas. The best samples, up to 35, will be hermetically sealed and dropped at various locations to be determined once the samples are collected.
A future rover will fetch the samples, after which a launcher will send them into space for a return to Earth.
Perseverance also carries a collection of other science and imaging instruments, and the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is strapped to its underside. The aircraft is powered by lithium-ion batteries that can recharge via solar panels.
Ingenuity is made up of a box carrying cameras and instruments, four spindly landing legs and two counter-rotating rotors. The rover itself will film the helicopter as it flies. NASA describes Ingenuity mostly as an experiment to prove it can fly an aircraft on another planet.
"The primary mission is the rock samples; the helicopter is a bonus," Arvidson said.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., developed the rover and shipped it to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where teams stacked it with the spacecraft that will carry it and its landing system to Mars.
About 800 people at NASA have worked on the rover, and most of them have worked from home since February or March due to the coronavirus threat. But the assembly of the rover and spacecraft requires personnel to be in close contact, said Art Thompson, deputy manager for assembly, test and launch operations.
"We began taking extra precautions about travel in January because of the coronavirus pandemic," Thompson said.
Thompson is normally based in Pasadena but has been in Florida at times for launch preparations.
"We are always extremely cautious about keeping everything clean if we're sending it to Mars," Thompson said. "We want to find Martian life there, not Florida life -- including viruses or bacteria."
They include using only NASA aircraft to transport team members to Florida and keeping three control teams in three separate control rooms to monitor and run systems for rover and spacecraft -- so any COVID-19 infections among the operators wouldn't impact the other two teams.
Like many high-tech manufacturing facilities, Kennedy Space Center's assembly building is known as a clean room -- with restricted access and filtered air to keep it free of dust and germs. Workers in such facilities always wear full protective gear. Even the gowning area at the entrance is restricted to very few people at one time, Thompson said.
"Believe it or not, we've had no serious problems and we're actually right on schedule," Thompson said. Once the rover is stacked and encapsulated for the seven-month journey in space, it will be moved to the launch pad.
Search for life
NASA announced the Mars 2020 rover mission in 2012, at a cost of $1.5 billion, but the budget swelled to $2.46 billion. Work on components started in 2017, while construction of the rover started streaming over a live webcam in June.
In keeping with NASA's tradition to have children name all Mars rovers, seventh-grader Alexander Mather of Virginia chose the name Perseverance. NASA announced his winning entry on March 5 after a national contest.
The samples collected and cached by Perseverance could return to Earth in the 2030s, said Kirsten Siebach, assistant professor of planetary geology at Rice University. She hopes to get the chance to study those samples.
"We certainly hope to find proof life once existed, or still does, on Mars," Siebach said. "Even if Mars didn't have life, such samples may help us understand geology on Earth, because life here actually contaminated a lot of our geology. Mars could help us see how geology works on a planet without life."
She's also interested in the results of the helicopter experiment.
"I hope it returns some cool images, because it will open up some things for Mars exploration. Perhaps we can have drones crisscrossing Mars to help us understand it better, Siebach said.