Follow along as NASA launches the Mars 2020 mission, perhaps the most ambitious hunt ever for signs of life on Mars, Wednesday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. For the first time, a rover attempts a risky landing in Jezero Crater, the coveted site of an ancient river delta that scientists believe once held all the ingredients for life. If the rover, called Perseverance, finds signs of life from an age when Mars was a watery planet like Earth, it could mean life is more likely to exist elsewhere in the solar system—and beyond.
But getting to Jezero isn’t easy, as the crater’s boulders and cliffs make it a dangerous place to land. The spacecraft will reach Mars’ atmosphere traveling at over 12,000 miles per hour and will have just a few minutes to execute an elaborate descent maneuver and lower the car-sized rover to the surface in just the right spot. If successful, Perseverance will comb the area and collect samples for a possible return to Earth. Traveling onboard Perseverance is a four-pound helicopter that will conduct a series of test flights—the first on another planet. During its journey, Perseverance will also test technology designed to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, in hopes that the gas could be used for fuel—or for humans to breathe—on future missions.