A new rover built by NASA and called Perseverance will land on Mars in February 2021 using the “sky crane” method. A giant parachute and rocket engines will slow down the mission’s descent before the rover is lowered to the surface using cables.
Perseverance – a six-wheel robotic machine with 23 cameras and a drill – will look for signs of ancient life in a large Jezero crater. It will collect rock and soil samples that appear to have been altered by contact with microorganisms.
The rover will store its samples in metal containers, but will leave them behind on the Martian surface to continue its mission. Perserverance’s plutonium-based power supply could cause the rover to roam around Mars for 10 years or more.
Within this decade – after 2026 – a second smaller rover will arrive on Mars, which will be built by the European Space Agency (ESA). This “fetch rover” will travel across the surface collecting the sample containers left by Perseverance.
The containers will be loaded into a protective container and placed in a small rocket: the Mars Ascent Vehicle or MAV. This will explode in the sky, placing the container in orbit around Mars.
The sample container will be flown into orbit and captured by a European satellite. This “return orbit” will behave like a merchant ship, bringing back precious specimens of rock and soil to Earth.
We do not expect the satellite to arrive home until at least 2031, when the sample container has been packed in a heavily protected capsule, to be sent to Earth’s atmosphere to land in North America.
Scientists will therefore study rocks and soil using advanced techniques, including some that have yet to be invented because there should be enough material to investigate for decades to come. The champions will shed light on the history of Mars and whether it has ever supported microbial life forms.