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Scientists look at NASA's Perseverance rover in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s next rover will be launching to Mars as early as July 30. It will join the Curiosity rover, Insight lander and six active orbiters at Mars when it lands in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.

Built using the same basic framework as Curiosity, Perseverance utilizes a proven design and landing system while integrating improved instrumentation. The wheels and cameras have been upgraded, and new science tools have been built to aid in the completion of the mission’s objectives.

The rover has four main science goals that it will seek to fulfill.

It will seek to identify past Martian environments capable of supporting microbial life. Previous rovers have uncovered evidence of liquid water in the Martian past, while both orbiters and landers have worked to characterize the climate and atmosphere of ancient Mars.

The region where Perseverance will land is home to an ancient river valley dating back 3.5 billion years. Not coincidentally, this is the same period of time when life arose on Earth.

Perseverance will use its new suite of instruments to search for signs of past microbial life. It will measure the distribution of elements and organic matter in ancient rocks with the PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) and SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Ramen and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) instruments, while taking visual images with WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering). Have I mentioned that NASA loves acronyms?

The SuperCam instrument will also investigate rock and soil samples with a laser, camera and spectrometer.

Rock and soil samples will be collected by Perseverance and stored on the Martian surface or within the rover itself. These samples will be returned to Earth by a future mission. As sophisticated as Perseverance is, its capabilities pale in comparison to laboratories here on Earth.

Experiments will also be conducted to extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. This is a critical step in preparing for future exploration of Mars by humans.

The launch is currently scheduled for July 30 at 7:50 a.m., and you can watch the event online. Check the NASA website for launch info as weather and other factors may affect launch timing.

The Weekly Roundup: The morning sky

Venus blazes is the eastern morning sky. Venus presents a crescent that’s about 40% illuminated this week. Joining Venus is Mercury, very low in the east before sunrise. Mars rises just after midnight and is high in the south to start your day. It’s possible to see all five naked-eye planets in the morning. Jupiter and Saturn are low in the west, setting between 5:30 and 6 a.m. 

The evening sky

Wow. Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE is the brightest and most interesting comet in over 20 years. I’ve observed it on several mornings and have followed it to the evening sky where it is visible moving through the constellation of Ursa Major in the north west after sunset. From my rural home, the comet is easily visible to the naked eye, with an obvious tail extending at least 5 degrees. With binocular or telescopic aid, the comet is even more jaw-dropping. If you haven’t seen it, get out there as soon as you can. It might be another 20 years before we see a comet this spectacular.

Dan Price is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador and informal educator. He leads the Night Sky Tours at Josephine Sculpture Park. Have a question about astronomy or space science? Send an email to dan@starpointestudio.com and it might be featured in a future column.

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