ORLANDO, June 17 (UPI) -- NASA's new microbe-hunting Mars rover, scheduled for launch July 20, is the most sophisticated rover yet, but it will take at least a decade to determine whether samples the machine collects exhibit signs of life, agency officials said Wednesday.
The Perseverance rover is expected to land on the Red Planet in February. It is designed to drill samples of rock and drop them for a future mission to pick up and send back to Earth. The rover also has advanced science equipment on board to scan the samples for signs of past or present life.
But scientists don't expect the rover's data, sent over millions of miles through space, to confirmation life on the Red Planet.
"On Mars, it will be more of a potential confirmation," said NASA's Katie Stack Morgan, the Perseverance deputy project scientist. "It's very likely we'll have to return those samples to Earth."
NASA doesn't expect to bring the samples back until 2031 due to the expense and planning required, as well as orbital periods when the two planets are too far apart for travel between them.
Once the samples arrive on Earth, the worldwide scientific community will use all the latest technology to examine them, Stack Morgan said.
The samples "will provide new knowledge for decades to come, with state-of-the-art lab equipment we couldn't possibly take to the Red Planet right now," said Lori Glaze, director of NASA's planetary science division.
NASA also said Wednesday that engineers added cameras and audio equipment to the outside of the landing spacecraft for the rover. With that equipment, the space agency hopes to obtain the first footage and audio recordings of a spacecraft landing on another planet, said Matt Wallace, the deputy project manager.
A plaque commemorating medical personnel during the coronavirus pandemic recently was attached to the craft, Wallace said.
The launch is planned for Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V rocket. The rover is to land in Mars' Jezero Crater about seven months later.
The mission could be launched 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 required proximity.
The rover is to take samples where scientists found evidence of ancient river deltas. The best samples, up to 35, will be hermetically sealed for the fetch rover.