July 28 (UPI) -- Ahead of this week's planned Mars rover launch from Florida, NASA scientists spent Tuesday highlighting major science objectives for the mission that could impact future space travel.
The exploration and experiments that the Mars rover will undertake are aimed largely at learning about the Red Planet and how mankind someday could create an outpost there.
Several experiments traveling with the rover -- including a helicopter strapped to its undercarriage -- are meant to test technologies NASA scientists need for the first human trip to Mars, including the ability to study samples from the planet at home.
On board the Perseverance rover, which is to be launched Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, are 43 containers the size of cigar tubes designed to hold rock and dirt samples.
If all goes well, many of them will be back on Earth by 2031 as part of an international effort to study them for possible signs that life once existed on Mars.
The samples would be the first ever returned from another planet. The plan to get them back involves several spacecraft, two rovers and the first attempt to launch a rocket from another planet.
A relay race
"It's kind of an interplanetary relay race," David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration for the European Space Agency, said at a news conference Tuesday based at Kennedy Space Center. The agency is part of the international effort to bring samples back from the Red Planet.
"Any launch to Mars is exciting but to me, but this is exciting times 10 because of the sample return," Parker said.
"The samples from Mars have the potential for profound change of our understanding of Martian planetary evolution," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
Scientists have wanted for decades to obtain rock samples from Mars. A global panel of researchers decided in 2008 that a sample return would be "the single mission that would make the most progress" in understanding Martian geology and possible biology.
Experts have studied meteorites that landed on Earth and are known to have come from Mars, but Perseverance offers the chance to choose Martian rocks specifically for their scientific value.
The rover, about the size of a small SUV, is packed with instruments that will examine rocks in the Jezero Crater just north of the Martian equator. Scientists believe water once flowed from a river into the crater, and that the area had potential to support life at one time.
Hundreds of scientists on Earth will study the data and images Perseverance beams back and decide precisely where to drill, according to Chris Herd, a scientist with the Canadian University of Alberta in Edmonton, who is part of the Mars sample return program.
The goal is "to collect at least 20, ideally more like 30 or 35, samples that not only have the potential to show evidence of ancient life, but also reflect a variety of different types of rocks," Herd said at Tuesday's press briefing.
Finding rocks that formed in water is a key to discovering evidence of life because they could hold traces of organic compounds or even existing microbes, if any exist on Mars, he said.
Once scientists identify a rock of interest, Perseverance will drill into it and obtain a core sample about 2 inches long, according to NASA.
The robotic instruments on the rover will then seal the sample in a tube and place the tube in a storage rack on board. The rover then will transport the tube until mission control commands it to deposit the container on the Martian surface.
Perseverance, however, isn't equipped to send the samples back to Earth. That will be up to two spacecraft NASA and the European Space Agency plan to launch around 2026 -- the NASA-led sample retrieval lander and an ESA-led Earth return orbiter.
The lander is to include a fetch rover to retrieve the samples and bring them back to the lander, from which a small rocket will launch them into Mars orbit. The orbiter then will retrieve the samples and fly back to Earth.
NASA expects the samples to depart Mars in 2029 and return to Earth in 2031. The agency also plans to build a highly secure laboratory on Earth to house and study the samples.
The launch of NASA's Perseverance mission to Mars on Thursday will be another step toward developing capabilities necessary for a safe and successful human mission to the Red Planet, scientists say.
While a human mission to Mars remains years away, the technologies being tested on the Red Planet now could pay dividends much sooner.
"Some of the technologies demonstrated on the Perseverance mission will also be applicable for our return to the moon," said Michelle Rucker, Mars Integration Lead at Johnson Space Center.
The entry, descent and landing portion is the most challenging and nerve-racking portion of any lander mission, whether to Mars, the moon or some other planetary body, scientists say.
The challenge will be even greater and more anxiety-inducing once human lives are on the line.
"We still can't land exactly where we want to be," Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said during Tuesday's second press briefing.
When NASA sends humans to Mars, the space agency most likely will need to land several different payloads relatively close to each other. To execute more precise landings, engineers at NASA developed terrain relative navigation.
The TRN system, which is integrated on the Mars 2020 spacecraft, uses cameras and complex image analysis algorithms to ensure the descent vehicles are headed in the right direction.
"The lander vision system compares images of the landing site with maps that have been prepared with orbiter images," said Jeff Sheehy, chief engineer at NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. "This is the kind of technology that we'll need to land several different assets close to each other."
The Mars 2020 entry vehicle also is outfitted with 28 sensors that will data during the entry, descent and landing phases. Engineers will compare the measurements to data collected by sensors on the spacecraft that carried the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface in 2012.
Living off the land
The Mars 2020 mission and the Perseverance rover also will execute a handful of technology demonstrations once on the Mars surface.
"When we explore Mars in the future we want to be able to live off the land in some respects," Watzin said.
The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, will demonstrate the potential for oxygen production on the planet.
According to NASA, MOXIE is the first "in-situ resource utilization technology" to be deployed on another world. The instrument will capture carbon dioxide and convert it into carbon monoxide and oxygen molecules.
NASA engineers also integrated a pair of geologic and meteorological instruments onto the Perseverance rover.
The radar imager for Mars' subsurface experiment, or RIMFAX instrument, will use ground-penetrating radar to study the Mars subsurface.
"We're going to start to probe the upper 10 meters [32.8 feet] or so of Mars to understand the soil and rock structure and start to do the necessary civil engineering to understand whether the ground will support the larger landers humans will use to get to Mars," Watzin said.
The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer will collect temperature, wind, air pressure and other meteorologic data that help scientists study Martian weather and better predict the hazards humans will face on Mars.
NASA researchers even will use Perseverance as an opportunity to test materials for Martian spacesuits.
"Humans will be on the surface of Mars for up to 500 days ... so I need a durable, reliable spacesuit," said advanced spacesuit designer Amy Ross. "To do that, I need to understand how my materials hold up."