Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

More than any of its increasingly sophisticated predecessors, NASA's next robot on Mars will pave the way for getting humans to the Red Planet.

Why it matters: Rovers, landers and orbiters have beamed back invaluable data about Mars for decades, but the next phase in exploration depends on human explorers. One astronaut conducting science on Mars' surface could yield more efficient and quicker results than even the most advanced robot.

What's happening: NASA's Perseverance rover — expected to launch to Mars Thursday on a mission to hunt for signs of past life — marks the culmination of decades of robotic exploration of the Red Planet.

  • NASA has methodically "followed the water" on Mars for about the past 20 years, and progressively found evidence that the planet was once habitable and pinpointed areas where life may have been preserved, like Perseverance's landing site in Jezero Crater.
  • Perseverance, however, is the first mission with a real shot at finding actual signs of past life.
  • "It's what we've been building up to for a long time now," planetary scientist Briony Horgan of Purdue University told Axios.

The big picture: This new chapter of exploration will also allow NASA to learn more about what's needed to make a human mission successful.

  • One of the experiments — called MOXIE — flying to Mars aboard Perseverance is designed to figure out how to draw oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere, a piece of tech that could eventually be used by crews.
  • But more than the practical elements of finding ways for people to survive on Mars for the long haul, Perseverance opens the door for future missions that will map ice and water on the planet that can be studied and eventually used by explorers.
  • "I see easily a couple more decades of this adventure unfolding," Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, told Axios, referencing the future of human and robotic missions to the Red Planet.

Between the lines: Perseverance will also set up future robotic missions with its work on the Red Planet's surface.

  • Scientists using the rover will cache samples of interesting Martian rocks and dirt that will be stored on the planet and eventually returned to Earth using a robotic sample return mission in the early 2030s.
  • Those samples will allow scientists back on Earth to figure out exactly when Martian rocks formed, giving them a keen sense of the geological history — and possibly the history of life — on the planet.
  • Some rocks could even help to determine the temperature of the Martian lake they were formed within.
"All of the things that we understand about the Earth from, for example, geology and geochemistry — they perfectly apply on Mars."
Kenneth Farley, Perseverance project scientist, to Axios

What's next: NASA plans to use the Moon and its Artemis program as a staging ground to get to Mars sometime in the 2030s.

  • The space agency is also going to have to decide where its robotic Martian exploration program goes from here, with some scientists advocating for smaller, less expensive missions to help gather new data alongside the larger ticket spacecraft.

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Aug 1, 2020 - Science

NASA astronauts head home after historic spaceflight

The Crew Dragon spacecraft as it leaves the International Space Station. Photo: NASA TV

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are heading back to Earth from the International Space Station aboard their SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Why it matters: Behnken and Hurley's return will mark the end of SpaceX's first crewed mission to the station and the first mission in which American astronauts launched from U.S. soil in nine years.

A quandary for state unemployment agencies

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

State agencies charged with paying unemployment benefits to jobless residents have their backs against the wall as they rush to parse President Trump's executive actions on coronavirus aid.

Why it matters: States are being asked to pitch in $100 per unemployed resident, but it’s a heavy lift for cash-strapped states that are still unclear about the details and may not opt-in at all. It leaves the states and jobless residents in a state of limbo.

Updated 51 mins ago - Health

New Zealand reports first local coronavirus cases for 102 days

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after a press conference at Parliament on July 22 in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Auckland is locking down and the rest of New Zealand faces lesser restrictions for 72 hours after a family of four tested positive for COVID-19, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: It's the first cases not in managed isolation for 102 days, Ardern said at a news briefing.