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Perseverance's landing site, Jezero Crater on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL

NASA's Perseverance rover — designed to hunt for signs of past life on Mars — is in the final stages of preparation before launching to the Red Planet as early as July 20.

Why it matters: The mission, which dodged possible delays from the coronavirus, marks a step forward for NASA's ambitions to investigate whether Mars was inhabited at some point in the past.

Details: The rover's suite of instruments and landing site were chosen to give NASA its best shot at finding some sign of life on the Red Planet.

  • Perseverance will carry a helicopter to Mars that will serve as a technology demonstration that could help the space agency develop future missions.
  • The rover will also carry a small plaque honoring the health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

The intrigue: Scientists will likely face unique challenges when hunting for signs of life on Mars, including figuring out exactly what a sign of life looks like.

  • "Our bar is high for the identification of a sign of life on another planet, as it should be," Katie Stack Morgan, Perseverance deputy project scientist, said during a news conference.
  • "I think what we're looking for are really the patterns and textures where we have a hard time explaining how that could have formed without the influence of life."

What's next: In part because of that complexity, Perseverance will also come equipped with the ability to cache samples of interesting rocks and dirt on the Martian surface that can then be returned to Earth by a future mission.

  • That robotic mission is expected to launch in 2026, with the samples due to be back on Earth by 2031 if all goes as planned.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Sep 23, 2020 - Science

Private companies are aiming for the International Space Station

The International Space Station. Photo: NASA

The International Space Station is open for business and private companies are making expensive plans to capitalize on it.

Why it matters: This commercialization effort by NASA is part of the agency's broader goals to welcome a broad swath of private enterprises to space to boost an economy in low-Earth orbit that will make NASA a buyer among many users instead of a sole provider.

10 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.