NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission is on its way to the Red Planet to search for signs of ancient life and collect samples to send back to Earth.
Humanity's most sophisticated rover launched with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at 7:50 a.m. EDT (4:50 a.m. PDT) Thursday on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The ULA Atlas V's Centaur upper stage initially placed the Mars 2020 spacecraft into a parking orbit around Earth. The engine fired for a second time and the spacecraft separated from the Centaur as expected. Navigation data indicate the spacecraft is perfectly on course to Mars.
Right now, the Mars 2020 mission is completing a full health assessment on the spacecraft and is working to return the spacecraft to a nominal configuration for its journey to Mars.
The Perseverance rover's astrobiology mission is to seek out signs of past microscopic life on Mars, explore the diverse geology of its landing site, Jezero Crater, and demonstrate key technologies that will help us prepare for future robotic and human exploration.
The Martian rock and dust Perseverance’s Sample Caching System collects could answer fundamental questions about the potential for life to exist beyond Earth. Two future missions currently under consideration by NASA, in collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency), will work together to get the samples to an orbiter for return to Earth. When they arrive on Earth, the Mars samples will undergo in-depth analysis by scientists around the world using equipment far too large to send to the Red Planet.
Optical instruments to examine samples taken on Mars
JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and will manage operations of the Mars Perseverance rover. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management, and ULA provided the Atlas V rocket.The mission to Mars in 2020 will send the Mars Rover up to look for natural resources, inspect for hazards and investigate generable habitability of the planet in preparation for future human expeditions. The Rover will be equipped with advanced instruments including the SuperCam, which uses remote optical measurements and laser spectroscopy to examine the composition of samples taken on Mars.
OptoSigma Europe SAS is contributing to the development of SuperCam, a remote sensing instrument for the NASA Mars 2020 mission to the red planet. Among other suppliers, OptoSigma has been selected to provide different optical elements, such as advanced beamsplitters for selecting specific wavelength ranges and directing them to the different sensors of the instrument.
The SuperCam is the result of a cooperation between teams led by the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL, New Mexico, US) and the Astrophysics and Planetology Research Institute (IRAP, Toulouse, France). IRAP and a consortium of six French laboratories will supply an optical and electronic unit plus spectrographs, to be mounted at the top of the rover mast. The Mars 2020 rover will be launched in July 2020 and will land 7 months later. Surface operations are scheduled to last until August 2023.
The instrument will use remote optical measurements and laser spectroscopy to determine fine-scale mineralogy, chemistry, and atomic and molecular composition of samples encountered on Mars. To enable these measurements, SuperCam is, in fact, many instruments in one.
For probing elemental composition, it integrates the remote Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) capabilities of the highly successful ChemCam instrument included in the payload of the Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars. LIBS uses a 1064-nm laser to investigate targets up to 7 m distance from the rover.
SuperCam in addition performs Raman spectroscopy at 532 nm to investigate targets up to 12 m distance from the rover, Time-Resolved Fluorescence (TRF) spectroscopy, Visible and InfraRed (VISIR) reflectance spectroscopy (400 – 900 nm and 1.3 – 2.6 μm) to provide information about the mineralogy and molecular structure of probes from rocks on Mars. It will also be able to search directly for organic materials.
Further, SuperCam can acquire high-resolution images of samples with a remote color micro-imager (RMI). Measurements can be rapidly obtained without the need to position the rover or rover arm on a target. As demonstrated by ChemCam, the SuperCam laser can be used to “blast off” dust from surfaces at a distance enabling a better look at solid surfaces on Mars, without having to drive up to samples and perform manipulations with the rover arm or associated tools.
Seven months of interplanetary space travel
About seven cold, dark, unforgiving months of interplanetary space travel lay ahead for the mission – a fact never far from the mind of Mars 2020 project team.
"There is still a lot of road between us and Mars," said John McNamee, Mars 2020 project manager at JPL. "About 290 million miles of them. But if there was ever a team that could make it happen, it is this one. We are going to Jezero Crater. We will see you there Feb. 18, 2021."
The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of America's larger Moon to Mars exploration approach that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with sending the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis program.