Mars Rover Perseverance Offers the Best Chance Yet of Finding Signs of Life on Red Planet

After a seven-month and 125 million–mile journey, the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover will touch down on the red planet today at the expected time of 3:55 p.m. ET. The rover will first have to undergo a difficult landing that NASA refers to as the "seven minutes of terror" due to the number of challenges present and the fact that they occur too fast for radio signals to and from Earth, but it will then set forth on what is hoped to be an extraordinary mission: The most comprehensive search yet for signs of life and past presence of water on Mars.

Perseverance model
A full-scale model of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is displayed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on February 16 in Pasadena, California. The Mars exploration rover will search for signs of ancient microbial life and collect rock samples for future return to Earth to study the red planet's geology and climate, paving the way for human exploration. Getty

The site chosen for this grand exploration is the Jezero Crater. Scientists feel this crater with a diameter of approximately 30 miles was once a water-filled lake, and thus the best possible place currently known to examine the ground for past Martian life.

Perseverance will send information in real time, while also collecting rock samples. These samples will be stored on the surface of Mars for a potential future mission to pickup and return to Earth. The rover will also be busy photographing and investigating specified target areas in the delta of Jezero. In addition to all those tasks, Perseverance will test out the Ingenuity helicopter drone to see if targeted scouting is possible on the planet.

The work Perseverance sets out to do is based on approximately 50 years of past missions, with much of the water-searching research it's using coming from rovers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Spirit and Opportunity rover missions, which both started in 2004, were especially instrumental in the understanding of the history of water on Mars. Then 2012's Curiosity confirmed the presence of organic molecules that could be the building blocks of life.

"We've built on all of that knowledge to prepare ourselves now with the Perseverance rover," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's planetary science division, said in a NASA press conference on February 17 that involved several of the program's officials. She said that with Perseverance, NASA looks to "take that next step—to really, actually look for those signs of life."

As with all the prior missions, Perseverance is seen as just another building block for information and discovery—though a large one—to be used to inform future Mars landings and explorations. Perseverance could also lead the way to human exploration of Mars one day. First, though, a lot of logistics has to go right for a safe landing and the hope that all the communications gear works properly.

"This is a very fast-paced, high-stakes operation. It's kind of a race to get it done. And it also involves literally hundreds of people having to work together seamlessly. I can tell you, this is not what scientists usually do. Scientists do not usually perform under these kinds of circumstances," Ken Farley, Perseverance project scientist at the California Institute of Technology, said at the press conference. "It's a big challenge and I think we are ready."