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NASA rushing to complete Mars launch before planet moves out of range. Mission to include first-ever helicopter exploration.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/17/2020 Christian Davenport
a group of people in a room: The Mars rover in a 2019 driving test at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. © J. Krohn/AP The Mars rover in a 2019 driving test at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif.

Landing a spacecraft on Mars is hard enough. Doing it during a global pandemic makes the hair-raising task — “terror” is a word often associated with Mars landings — even more difficult. But NASA is pushing ahead with its plans to send a rover to Mars, and remains on track to launch the spacecraft next month from Cape Canaveral, officials said Wednesday.

Then again, NASA is facing a tight deadline.

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Mars and Earth are only on the same side of the sun every 26 months, meaning NASA has a limited window to launch the spacecraft to the Red Planet. Storing the spacecraft and waiting another two years for the next opportunity could have cost “half a billion dollars,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press briefing Wednesday, so the space agency made the mission a high priority, despite the coronavirus pandemic. 

Despite the difficulties of working amid the virus, officials said they have made significant progress on what they called one of the most ambitious and significant robotic programs the space agency has tackled in years.

Dubbed “Perseverance,” the SUV-sized rover would embark on a $2.7 billion exploration mission to search for ancient signs of life on Mars, and begin the first leg of an attempt to bring samples from the Red Planet back to Earth. Over the course of a mission that is expected to last some two years on the surface, the rover would also study the planet’s climate and geology and help pave the way for human exploration, NASA said.

The spacecraft also will be carrying a small helicopter, called “Ingenuity,” which would become the first rotorcraft to fly on another planet.

If all goes well, the spacecraft would lift off on an Atlas V rocket from the Florida Space Coast on July 20 and land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. For the landing site, NASA has chosen a crater called Jezero, the site of an ancient lake as well as a delta, where there are rocks that date back 4 billion years. Perseverance is expected to scour the area, drilling for samples and signs of habitable conditions and even signs of ancient microbial life.

“The rover will study the record that is preserved in layers of rock on the surface of Mars ...that could have proved evidence of the chemical building blocks of life,” said Lori Glaze, the director of NASA’s planetary science division.

The rover would stockpile the samples on the Martian surface, to be picked up on a subsequent mission, to launch to Mars in 2026, for return to Earth. That would be a first, Glaze said.

Scientists have studied samples of meteorites that have come from Mars, but “it’s not the same as getting an actual sample of pristine Mars rock and soil to study,” she said. “And now we’re at a point where we can begin to attempt his amazing feat.”

With six wheels designed to handle the rugged Martian terrain, Perseverance in many ways looks like Curiosity, one of its predecessors on Mars. But it’s a “new vehicle with new capabilities,” said Matt Wallace, the Perseverance deputy program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The spacecraft would be outfitted with a more powerful computer that would help guide it to the surface and help it avoid hazardous areas, such as rock piles. It would also have high resolution cameras that to record the landing.

“We should be able to watch this big parachute inflate supersonically,” Wallace said. “We should be able to watch the rover deploy and touch down on the surface. And this is going to be very exciting — the first time that we have ever been able to see a spacecraft land on another planet.”

NASA hopes the mission will pave the way for an eventual human mission to the Red Planet. It is aggressively pursuing a return to the moon under its Artemis program, which aims to have astronauts there by 2024. NASA ultimately would like to operate a space station in lunar orbit known as the Gateway that could become a jumping off point for Mars.

In addition to probing for signs of ancient life on and below the Martian surface, the Perseverance mission would also take to the skies. The Ingenuity helicopter would attempt to fly — an exceedingly difficult task given that the “atmosphere on Mars is only one percent the density that we have here on Earth," Wallace said. "Trying to control a system like this under those conditions is not easy.”

NASA hopes to get at least three flights from the helicopter but stressed it was purely a technology demonstration mission and would take each one as they come.

It’s possible, though, that the rover might be able to zoom in and snap a photograph of the helicopter hovering above the planet’s red soil.

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