NASA's Mars rover Perseverance touches down on Mars on February 18, 2021, as photographed by the landing craft that lowered it to the surface. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo
ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Now that the Mars rover Perseverance has spent a year on the Red Planet, the robotic explorer is poised to accelerate its primary mission -- drilling rock samples that will be sent back to Earth in a hunt for ancient life.
The rover, about the size of an SUV, already collected six rock samples from the floor of Jezero Crater in Mars' Northern Hemisphere. Over the past year, though, the rover mission also spent months testing its own systems and those of the tiny helicopter Ingenuity.
As the rover enters its second Earth year on Mars, it is poised to make a relatively quick trip to the ancient river delta and crater rim that towers hundreds of feet over the crater floor.
NASA hopes the rover will collect dozens of samples from the delta and crater rim in the next two years, Briony Horgan, associate professor of planetary science at Indiana-based Purdue University, told UPI.
"It's an extremely ambitious mission goal," said Horgan, who is part of a team of scientists working on the mission. "We're being asked to drive faster and farther and collect more samples more quickly than any rover has had to before."
The reason for the deadline: The Perseverance mission will have a visitor in 2028, the Mars Sample Return mission. It is expected to land near the crater to collect Perseverance's samples and launch them into space for a return to Earth.
Searching for ancient life, human dangers
In the meantime, Perseverance will use images from Ingenuity's flights to choose the best route up the eroded crater wall. There's a small possibility the rover could find obvious signs of ancient life, but that is not likely, Horgan said.
"We're looking for any kind of biosignature, anything left behind by ancient life," she said. "If we saw something like a stromatolite, an ancient fossil, that would be easier to identify, but we probably need to examine the rocks in a lab on Earth to make conclusions."
Perseverance landed on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021 after a seven-month journey through space upon launching from Florida in July 2020.
NASA has learned lessons from Perseverance's rock drilling so far, and many more samples will follow, said Ray Arvidson, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
"Exciting times are ahead as the rover heads to the main portion of the Jezero delta that once was the depositional locus of river sediment entering into the lake's margin," said Arvidson, who has worked on every Mars mission since the 1970s.
In fact, Arvidson said Perseverance's samples, once analyzed on Earth, will be valuable to possible future human exploration of Mars.
Besides the potential to find signs of ancient life, the samples could provide information on problems for human explorers, he said.
Samples could reveal "health hazards such as the presence of toxic perchlorate compounds in the regolith" which could exist widely on Mars, Arvidson said.
Such knowledge could help future missions choose the best landing site for more exploration, he said.
Returning samples to Earth
Meanwhile, NASA has ordered construction of three spacecraft that will be involved in the sample return, Dave Murrow, business development lead for deep space exploration at Lockheed Martin, told UPI.
One of those, the Earth Return Orbiter, will head to a Mars orbit in 2026 to await the sample launch from Mars and carry the sample back to Earth. That mission is mostly handled by the European Space Agency.
Lockheed will have a major role in construction of the lander that will carry a rocket, the Mars Ascent Vehicle or MAV, to launch the samples in 2028. Lockheed is building the MAV and the cruise stage spacecraft bus that will carry it through space.
"That cruise stage is a relatively high-heritage design, conceptually similar to cruise stages that we've built for Phoenix and the InSight Mars landers," Murrow said.
The spring-like system that will loft the MAV into the air for its rockets to ignite and leave Mars also has been used before, to launch missiles, he said.
When the future missions arrive at Mars in the coming years, they will face the infamous "seven minutes of terror" that NASA mission controllers have described as communications are interrupted by the fiery entry in the Martian atmosphere, Murrow said.
But much of the process for such a landing on Mars is well-understood now, which helps lower the risk involved, he said.
NASA's Perseverance Mars rover, using its Mastcam-Z camera system, captured this view of the Martian sunset on November 9, 2021, the 257th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Martian sunsets typically stand out for their distinctive blue color as fine dust in the atmosphere permits blue light to penetrate the atmosphere more efficiently than colors with longer wavelengths. But this sunset looks different: Less dust in the atmosphere resulted in a more muted color than average. The color has been calibrated and white-balanced to remove camera artifacts. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo