Cape Canaveral, FL – The launch of NASA’s Mars rover ‘Perseverance’, the life-hunting, sample-caching Red Planet explorer, is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket during a window that runs from July 20 through August 11.
Getting to this point has not been easy. Mission teams have had to prep the rover and rocket for liftoff while the coronavirus pandemic swirled around them, forcing the closure of many NASA facilities. But the space agency prioritized getting ‘Perseverance’ to the pad on time (while protecting workers’ safety as well), given that Mars-mission launch windows open just once every 26 months.
Whenever the six-wheeled rover lifts off during the coming window, it will land on February 18, 2021, inside the Red Planet’s 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater. Jezero harbored a lake and river delta billions of years ago, and ‘Perseverance’ will use its seven science instruments to characterize that potentially habitable ancient environment and look for evidence of long-dead Mars life, among other things. No robot has hunted for signs of life on the Martian surface since NASA’s twin Viking landers, which touched down in the mid-1970s to look for extant organisms.
As the Vikings’ ambiguous results show, making a definitive detection of alien life is a tall order for a lonely robot on a faraway world. So, Perseverance will also collect and cache several dozen pristine samples, which will be brought to Earth by a joint NASA/European Space Agency effort in 2031, if current plans hold. One of the rover’s instruments will generate oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is thin and dominated by carbon dioxide.
The Mars 2020 mission also features a tiny helicopter named ‘Ingenuity’, which will travel to the Red Planet on Perseverance’s belly. ‘Ingenuity’ will make a few short test flights in the Martian sky, potentially paving the way for future rotorcraft that could serve as rover scouts and/or gather lots of data on their own.
The nuclear-powered Perseverance is also outfitted with 23 cameras and two microphones. If all goes according to plan, the mission will capture high-definition video of Perseverance’s dramatic sky-crane landing and record the sounds of the Martian surface. Both types of data collection would be unprecedented. Two other NASA robots are active on the Martian surface at the moment: the InSight Mars lander, which has been monitoring marsquakes since its November 2018 touchdown, and the Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater since August 2012.
Curiosity is Perseverance’s forebear in multiple ways. Perseverance’s chassis is based heavily on that of the older rover, which also pioneered the sky-crane landing strategy that Mars 2020 will employ. And Curiosity has determined that at least some parts of Mars were capable of supporting Earth-like life in the ancient past, paving the way for Perseverance to take the next step and hunt for signs of native Martian organisms.
Upcoming Rocket Launches/Missions
06/30: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the U.S. Air Force’s third third-generation navigation satellite, designated GPS 3 SV03, for the Global Positioning System. It will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 2:55 p.m.
07/01: NASA astronauts Chris Cassidy and Bob Behnken will take a 7-hour spacewalk outside the International Space Station beginning at 6:35 a.m.
07/20: NASA’s Mars 2020 rover launches to the Red Planet! It will lift off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
07/23: Russian Soyuz rocket will launch the 76th Progress cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. It will lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 9:26 a.m.
08/01: SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the SXM 7 satellite for SiriusXM. It will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 11:27 a.m.
08/26: United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket will launch a classified spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. The mission, titled NROL-44, will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
08/30: SpaceX will launch Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi. The mission will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.