Mars is still tiny and relatively far from the Earth this month, but it looms large at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There, the latest and greatest Mars rover is undergoing final assembly and checkout. Dubbed Mars 2020, it will launch sometime between July 17 and Aug. 5 and touch down in Jezero (JEZ-er-oh) Crater around 2:40 p.m. CST Feb. 18, 2021.
Until recently the rover was nameless. Not anymore. NASA held a “Name the Rover” essay contest and received 28,000 submissions from K-12 students from every state and territory. Virginia 7th grader Alexander Mather submitted the winning entry of “Perseverance.”
Mather’s interest in space started two years ago when he visited Space Camp in Alabama. After seeing the enormous Saturn V rocket — the one that launched the Apollo astronauts to the moon more than 50 years ago — he quickly became a space enthusiast. Soon he was checking NASA.gov daily, reading astronaut autobiographies and even 3D-printing flyable model rockets. When he heard about the contest, he was all in.
“Alex’s entry captured the spirit of exploration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate.
A similar contest was held in 2009 to name the current Mars rover Curiosity. That honor went to a 6th grader. Can you imagine how proud you’d feel as a young kid if your name had been selected? Nine finalists were chosen in the current contest. Here are the other eight names that almost won:
NASA’s Perseverance rover is as close as we’ve come to sending a scientist to Mars except it weighs a little bit more at just under 2,300 pounds (1,043 kg). The rover will search for signs of past microbial life on the Red Planet as well as characterize the planet’s climate and geology, and gather samples of Martian rocks and dust. Scientists will command the rover to collect dozens of rock and surface soil samples in tubes that will be piled in small caches across the surface for a later mission to retrieve and return for analysis on Earth.
Rocks that have been altered by water top the list as do those that contain organic molecules based on carbon. Finding rocks that formed in water, have the chemical building blocks of life, and can preserve signs of organics and life is key. Perseverance also has a drill in its tool belt that can penetrate 2 inches (5 cm) into target rocks to extract deeper samples.
Jezero Crater, 28 miles (45 km)wide, was carefully chosen to maximize the chances of finding any microbes should they have evolved on the Red Planet. It’s located on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Jezero — lake in several Slavic languages — was once home to an ancient river delta and huge lake that look remarkably earth-like in satellite images.
The lake and river later dried up as the planet’s climate changed, leaving behind thick layers of sediments. Mission scientists believe the crater preserves ancient organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life from the materials that flowed into it billions of years ago. Clay, which forms in the presence of water, has also been detected in and around Jezero from orbit.
The geologic diversity that makes the crater so appealing to Mars 2020 scientists also makes it a challenge for a safe landing with lots of small craters, boulders and depressions filled with sand dunes that could hang up a rover. But mission scientists can hardly pass up such a site rife with possibility. Like its predecessor Curiosity, Perseverance will descend to the surface using the same rocket-powered Sky Crane. The Mars 2020 mission will be the next step toward the ultimate goal of sending people to Mars.
Only a few months after the launch, Mars will be at opposition and closer to the Earth than it will be for the next 15 years. The planet will loom large and red in our night sky, teasing us with the possibility for life as Mars 2020 perseveres onward.