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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.

Updated 2 hours ago - Health

The next big bottleneck in the global vaccination effort

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

The world still needs more coronavirus vaccines, but an additional bottleneck has emerged in many low-income countries: They need help getting shots in arms.

Why it matters: Increasing vaccination rates across the world is both a humanitarian necessity and the best way to prevent dangerous new variants from emerging, but it increasingly requires complex problem-solving.

Updated 3 hours ago - Health

COVID-19 Omicron variant cases identified in Europe, U.K.

People wearing masks walk in London on Nov. 25. Photo: Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

Health officials in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany announced on Saturday that they've detected the first known cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The discoveries come as the world scrambles to respond to concerns over the new variant, discovered in South Africa earlier this week.