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Here’s how long the Perseverance rover could actually live on Mars

  • NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is slated to last roughly two years, but the Perseverance rover may last a great deal longer.
  • The rover is equipped with a nuclear powerplant that could keep its wheels moving for as long as 14 years.
  • The rover is also equipped with batteries to store extra power if needed.

NASA launched its Mars 2020 mission today which includes the Perseverance rover and the Mars helicopter Ingenuity. Against all odds and in the face of a global pandemic, NASA managed to pull off the near-impossible and squeezed in the launch at the very tail end of the seasonal Mars launch window.

As with all of its missions, NASA has an expected mission duration. In this case, Perseverance is expected to last at least one Martian year, which is roughly two Earth years from the date the rover lands on Mars. So, from the expected landing date of February 18th, 2021, we can expect the rover to be carrying out research on the red planet until early 2023… but how long could the rover really last?

If NASA has proven anything with its rover missions it’s that its hardware is built to last. The Opportunity rover, for example, had an initial mission timeline that stretched just three months. It completed that goal easily and continued to explore the Red Planet for over 14 additional years. Curiosity, which is still kicking on Mars today, had a primary mission that was expected to last for roughly two years, but it’s already approaching its 8th year of work on Mars.

That brings us to Perseverance. Perseverance is equipped with a nuclear power source that uses the heat of the decay of plutonium, converts it to electricity, and then powers the rover’s various systems. A pair of lithium-ion batteries store extra power whenever the rover may need it, offering a bit of backup energy in case the steady flow of power isn’t enough for it to scale a hill or perform some other taxing maneuver.

The thermoelectric generator has an expected lifespan of approximately 14 years according to the US Department of Energy which provided NASA with the powerplant. So, while NASA is only betting on two years to start with, the rover will have enough power to last it for 14 years, plus whatever backup juice is left in its batteries when that power source eventually poops out.

NASA doesn’t plan its missions with maximum lifespan in mind as objectives can change dramatically after the rover completes its initial mission goals. Depending on what Perseverance discovers, the science team may decide to venture to specific areas of the Jezero crater, which will be its landing site. Alternatively, the team may decide on a target that it hasn’t yet spotted, adding a wrinkle to the plans.

So, whatever happens after the rover lands, we can look forward to many years of awesome discoveries in the very near future.

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