A little while ago NASA’s Mars 2020 mission blasted off atop an Atlas V 541 rocket from Cape Canaveral. Almost 58 minutes after launch, the spacecraft regularly separated from the rocket’s last stage went en route to the planet Mars, where is scheduled to enter its orbit in February 2021. There, the Mars Rover Perseverance and the Ingenuity helicopter will land on the red planet.
The Mars Rover Perseverance is a project derived from its predecessor, the Mars Rover Curiosity, which has been exploring Gale Crater on Mars since 2012. Perseverance will land in Jezero Crater, another geologically very interesting place to also conduct the part of the mission that aims to search for traces of Martian life, present or past. The instruments, which include several cameras, are in part improved versions of Curiosity’s and in part new instruments suitable for a mission oriented also to the search for biological traces.
Among the new parts of the Mars 2020 mission, there’s a collection of samples that will not be pulverized for analysis but will be packaged. That’s because the plan is to send in the future a spacecraft capable of taking those samples to bring them back to Earth, where even more detailed analyzes can be conducted. This mission, in collaboration with ESA, is expected to be launched in 2026.
The helicopter, formally called Mars Helicopter Ingenuity, is the great new part of the Mars 2020 mission. It’s a technological proof-of-concept to verify that a drone can perform prolonged flights in the thin Martian atmosphere. In fact, it’s expected to fly only for a few minutes at a time at a few meters of altitude, but the results will be crucial to develop more Martian drones to be sent in future missions. To fly on Mars, its weight was kept to a minimum, 1.8 kg on Earth, so Ingenuity is equipped with two cameras but not with other scientific instruments.
The spacecraft is en route to Mars, where it’s scheduled to arrive on February 18, 2021. The landing system is also an improvement of the Mars Rover Curiosity’s, but in these cases, the risk margins are always high. If all goes well, it will be the beginning of another very interesting mission. Our knowledge of Mars could increase considerably in the coming years thanks also to the missions started in recent days that will increase the number of Martian space probes and rovers.