Perseverance rover reaches Mars within NASA’s Mars 2020 mission

Two research teams from the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country are participating in the mission that will put the mobile lab in position on the surface of Mars on the evening of Thursday 18 February

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First publication date: 17/02/2021

Agustin Sanchez Lavega, Eva Ferreira and Juan Manuel Madariaga
Agustin Sanchez Lavega, Eva Ferreira and Juan Manuel Madariaga. Photo: UPV/EHU.

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will be reaching Mars this Thursday following a journey taking six and a half months. The core component is the rover or autonomous vehicle Perseverance, a real mobile lab that will be exploring the surface of the Jezero crater. The UPV/EHU’s research groups led by Prof Agustín Sánchez-Lavega and Prof Juan Manuel Madariaga have participated in the development of the rover's two instruments and in other tasks in the mission.

In view of its features, the planet Mars is the best candidate to look for present or past life in the solar system. Mars has a radius of approximately half that of the Earth, its day is 24.5 hours long and due to the fact that the tilt of its rotation axis is 24 degrees, it has a yearly cycle of seasons like the Earth. However, the atmosphere of Mars is very thin (the surface pressure is about 7 thousandths of that of the Earth) and is composed of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that is giving us so much concern. Temperatures are freezing, averaging -50°C on the equator, and its surface is exposed to a huge amount of ultraviolet solar radiation. The chances of finding present life are remote –it may exist below the surface-, but the past of Mars does however hold out some hope.  During the first 700 million years after it was formed, the Earth and Mars were very similar. Mars had a dense atmosphere that allowed liquid water to be present on its surface, which harbours the possibility that life could have emerged on the planet.

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission carrying the rover or autonomous vehicle Perseverance, a real,1,050-kg mobile lab that will be exploring the surface of the Jezero crater near the planet’s equator, set off bound for Mars on 30 July. This location was chosen because in that distant past the crater hosted a lake, the waters of which may have been 250 m deep and into which a river (now dry) once flowed with its delta of sediment deposits.

 “The Perseverance rover is the most complex lab ever sent to Mars. It will be used not only to investigate the chances of past and present life on the planet using highly sophisticated instruments, but also to test out new technologies and select samples to be sent back to Earth in future missions to Mars,” said Agustín Sánchez-Lavega, head of the UPV/EHU’s Planetary Sciences Group. Among other things, they will be testing a device capable of extracting oxygen from the atmosphere to be used by astronauts visiting the planet. It also carries a small helicopter given the name Ingenuity weighing less than 2 kg and which will be used to make forays in the area to select the locations through which the rover will be moving.

Prof Sánchez-Lavega’s team is participating in the MEDA instrument developed at the Centre for Astrobiology-INTA in Madrid. It is a weather station equipped with numerous sensors to continuously monitor the state of the atmosphere and, in particular, to study the characteristics of the airborne dust. “Dust is always present in the Mars atmosphere, it is a source of problems for instruments and a hazard for human exploration of the planet. We aim to study its properties and its daily and annual cycles," said Sánchez-Lavega.

The team led by Prof Madariaga is participating in the SuperCam instrument and in various working groups of the mission itself. “The SuperCam is the most complex spectroscopic system for conducting remote examinations. Each of its units provides part of the information which when combined is going to enable not only chemical analyses to be made, as its predecessor Curiosity has been doing to date, but a petrographic analysis to be made as well, which no previous Mars mission has been able to carry out,” said Juan Manuel Madariaga, head of the IBeA (Research and Analytical Innovation) research group at the UPV/EHU.

Besides participating in developing the SuperCam, the IBeA has worked in the groups that chose the landing location, mapped the Jezero crater, specified possible trajectories for Perseverance, and above all has been involved in the Sample Return Science Group. “Perseverance will be taking 40 samples during the mission as a whole and they will be collected by another rover which will be sent by the Sample Return Mission (ESA and NASA collaboration). This mission will put them on a sphere that will be sent into the orbit of Mars and which will be collected by another spacecraft that will bring them back to Earth. We are hoping to be one of the labs that will analyse these samples, given our capacity to conduct non-destructive chemical analyses," said Prof Madariaga excitedly.

Perseverance will be joining its brother rover Curiosity and the platform Insight, both belonging to NASA, in a combined investigation at various locations on the planet. In May the small Tianwen 1 rover of the Chinese space agency is expected to join this “Martian invasion”. In addition, a set of eight orbiting spacecraft will be monitoring and supporting these missions. For one Martian year (687 earth days) at least, Perseverance will be studying the characteristics of the surface and atmosphere of the Jezero crater in detail, and if everything goes according to plan, as in previous missions, its exploration will continue over various years.

About the UPV/EHU researchers in Mars 2020

Agustín Sánchez-Lavega is participating as co-researcher in the MEDA instrument, he is professor of Physics at the UPV/EHU, head of the Planetary Sciences Group and winner of the 2016 Euskadi award for research. The following people are part of the group in the capacity of collaborators: Teresa del Río-Gaztelurrutia, Ricardo Hueso and Santiago Pérez-Hoyos, tenured UPV/EHU lecturers, Itziar Garate-Lopez, assistant lecturer and the researcher Asier Munguira (predoctoral).

Juan Manuel Madariaga is participating as co-researcher in the SuperCam instrument; he is professor of Analytical Chemistry at the UPV/EHU and head of the IBeA Research Group. Collaborating with the group are Gorka Arana and Kepa Castro, tenured lecturers at the UPV/EHU, the researchers Cristina García-Florentino (postdoctoral), Jennifer Huidobro (predoctoral) and Imanol Torre (predoctoral).

Links of Interest, NASA web pages:

- To watch and download the demo of the Perseverance rover touching down on Mars

- To see the features of the Perseverance rover

- Further information about the Mars2020 mission