The names of NASA’s Mars rovers have long served as a testament to those qualities of the human condition needed to explore space and all its extraterrestrial wonders. There was Spirit and Opportunity, two rovers sent out in 2004 to discover if Mars ever contained water. There is Curiosity, deployed in 2011 to determine whether the planet ever had the right environmental conditions to support life.
And then there is Perseverance, the latest addition to the agency’s lineup of robotic vehicles. Now en route to Mars, the rover will search for signs of microbial life there and collect soil samples for eventual return to Earth, paving the way for future human exploration of the Red Planet. “That inspiring work will always require perseverance,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, a NASA official who announced the rover’s name—selected among thousands of student entries—earlier this year.
But the name of NASA’s new rover has taken on renewed relevance more recently—specifically since its departure comes amid an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has tested the perseverance of people around the world, but particularly of front-line healthcare workers, who have worked tirelessly to contain the virus. This has also been true at the agency itself, where NASA officials say medical professionals have played an essential role in keeping mission team members safe during launch preparations.
The efforts ultimately compelled NASA officials to commemorate the world’s healthcare workers with a special plaque that now adorns the Perseverance rover as it makes its way through space.
"We wanted to demonstrate our appreciation for those who have put their personal well-being on the line for the good of others," said Matt Wallace, the Perseverance project's deputy manager. "It is our hope that when future generations travel to Mars and happen upon our rover, they will be reminded that back on Earth in the year 2020 there were such people."
At 3-by-5-inches, the black and white aluminum plate features a graphic depicting Earth seated atop the ancient symbol of the serpent-entwined rod, representing the medical community. A line illustrating a spacecraft's trajectory rises from Central Florida toward Mars, shown as a small dot in the background. Prior to departure, technicians installed the plate on the left side of the rover chassis, between the middle and rear wheels.
Perseverance is one of the agency’s most advanced robotic vehicles yet, featuring a Sample Caching System that will be the cleanest and most complex mechanism ever sent into space. The rover will carry the heaviest payload to ever go to Mars, and will also be the first planetary mission to collect and cache Martian rock core and dust samples. Later missions would send a separate spacecraft to the planet to collect the cached samples and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.
The rover launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 30, riding atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The spacecraft also carries the robotic Ingenuity, a lightweight helicopter that will be the first of its kind to fly on another planet. If all goes to plan, both are expected to land on Mars' Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021.