NASA is heading back to Mars with a new rover searching for signs of past life

The space agency is making final preparations for what one official calls "probably the most complex" scientific mission NASA has ever undertaken. Anderson Cooper reports.

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If you're tired of being cooped up and yearning for a get-away, have we got an adventure for you. It's a new mission to Mars, NASA's most ambitious one yet. The goal is to land a new vehicle, a high-tech rover, to search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet and, eventually, bring that evidence back to Earth. Unmanned spacecraft have been exploring and photographing Mars for decades. But no one's ever discovered clear signs of life there, or anywhere else in the universe. NASA scientists now believe they've found a perfect place to look. Coronavirus could have derailed the whole mission, but so far the launch is still on schedule. Blast off is less than two months away. Given all that's already happened, this new rover's name seems particularly appropriate: Perseverance.

It'll take seven months and a journey of hundreds of millions of miles for perseverance to get to Mars, the planet whose reddish hue, caused by rust particles in the rocks and soil, led the Romans to name it after their god of war. Today, the surface of Mars is a radiation-filled desert. It's freezing, minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit on average. There are windswept sand dunes and outcroppings of rock that could easily be mistaken for parts of Arizona. Some of those rocks hold clues that suggest Mars may have been a lot like Earth billions of years ago, with lakes and rivers of water and the building blocks of life.

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The new Mars rover, Perseverance

Bobby Braun: Perseverance is really our first astrobiology mission to Mars, where we're actually searching not just for environments that may have once been habitable but for evidence of the life that may have existed there in the past.

Bobby Braun, the director of solar system exploration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says Perseverance is designed to be the first of three missions that will be required in order to bring samples from Mars back to Earth.

Anderson Cooper: Has anyone ever brought back something from Mars?

Bobby Braun: No. It'll be the first round-trip adventure to any other planet. 

Nearly eight years and $2.5 billion have been spent building Perseverance. Bobby Braun told us that if NASA misses a narrow three-week window to launch that begins on July 17, it could cost half a billion dollars more and years of work.

Bobby Braun: Because of the motion of the Earth and Mars about the sun, you can only send a spacecraft from Earth to Mars once every 26 months. And if we miss that window we would have to wait 'til 2022 to try it again.

Anderson Cooper: You'd have to wait that long. Wow. I mean, there's not only a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of, very smart people dedicating their lives to this, there's also a lot of eyes on this.

Bobby Braun: Yeah, the stakes are high from a number of vantage points.

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Bobby Braun

Four previous Mars rovers have paved the way for this mission. The last rover, named Curiosity, has been on Mars for eight years, sending back images like these while exploring an area known as the Gale Crater. But Perseverance is the first rover specifically outfitted to collect retrievable samples. 

In early January, before there were any known cases of coronavirus in the U.S., NASA invited us to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where it's been building Perseverance and the vehicles that will bring it to Mars.  

They were in what's called a clean room, to keep them free of any dust particles or other contaminants that might jeopardize their mission.

Deputy project manager Matt Wallace showed us how to put on the layers of protective equipment required before entering the clean room. Our cameras were wiped down thoroughly, and we got what's called an "air shower."

Anderson Cooper: So that's the rover right there.

Matt Wallace: It's bigger than you think it's going to be…

Anderson Cooper: Yeah.

Matt Wallace: Usually when you get close. It's the heaviest. It's the most sophisticated, most capable vehicle that we've ever actually put on the surface of Mars. Yeah…

Perseverance is equipped with 25 cameras, two audio mics, and seven scientific instruments, many of them specifically designed to detect faint traces of ancient life on the surface of Mars. But the rover will also be testing out new technologies that astronauts may someday need to explore Mars and return back to Earth.

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Matt Wallace

Matt Wallace: One of them sits right inside this vehicle. It actually makes oxygen on Mars from the atmosphere for life support obviously, but also that oxygen is useful as an oxidizer for fuel for the return trip for those astronauts.

Anderson Cooper: Do you know that it is possible to make oxygen on Mars?

Matt Wallace: We know that it is theoretically possible. We have simulated the conditions here. But we're going to take it to Mars and show that we can do it.

Anderson Cooper: I know this isn't the most important thing, but the hubcaps are really cool. 

Matt Wallace: Thank you, yeah. 

The rover also has this small helicopter which it can drop on the surface of Mars.

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The rover's helicopter

If it works, it would be the first vehicle ever to fly in the atmosphere of another planet. 

One of the most important parts of the rover is its powerful robotic arm. If Perseverance finds fossils or other signs of ancient life, that robotic arm will be able to drill into the rock, collect core samples, and place them in specially designed, super-sterilized tubes.

Matt Wallace: And this is what the tube looks like actually. It's a titanium tube. And we're hoping to bring back 20, 30 samples. We're able to keep the sample very clean because this is really the only part of the spacecraft that the sample will touch, which is very important for the science of the mission.

Anderson Cooper: So you don't want any dirt or anything that would compromise the sample.

Matt Wallace: That's exactly right. 

For that reason, the actual tubes that will go to Mars were being kept in restricted areas nearby. These are even cleaner clean-rooms, where workers wearing double layers of protective gear were repeatedly sterilizing the tubes with heat and chemicals. The insides of those tubes, NASA says, are some of the cleanest things on Earth.

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A tube that will be used to collect samples from Mars is sterilized

A team of NASA scientists will decide where Perseverance goes and what kind of rock samples it'll collect.

Anderson Cooper: You only have 20 or 30 samples that you'll be able to get. I mean, you've got to pick some good ones.

Katie Stack Morgan: That's right.

Anderson Cooper: Is that scary?

Katie Stack Morgan: No, it's exciting. 

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Katie Stack Morgan

Katie Stack Morgan worked as a geologist on the Curiosity rover mission and is a deputy project scientist for Perseverance.

Anderson Cooper: If there was life on Mars, how long ago was it?

Katie Stack Morgan: So we think it was probably at least 3 billion years ago on the surface.

Anderson Cooper: You're talking about not actual Martians, but organisms.

Katie Stack Morgan: We're thinking microbial life, very simple, single cell organisms-- that kind of thing.

Anderson Cooper: What would that look like?

Katie Stack Morgan: Well, they can take all kinds of forms, you know, small tubes and little circular fossils, micro-fossils. You know, we have examples of this-- from Earth-- Most rocks are layers, very flat, horizontal layers. But sometimes we get very interesting shapes like this, and that these microbes were responsible for the interesting shapes-- that we think formed that rock.

Anderson Cooper: So something like this, you wouldn't be surprised to actually see.

Katie Stack Morgan: We would be absolutely delighted to discover something that looked like that.

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An image of the Jezero crater on Mars JPL

Here's where NASA thinks it has the best chance of finding signs of life on Mars. It's called the Jezero Crater. No rover has ever been there before. It doesn't look like much today, but three and a half billion years ago scientists believe it had the makings of a microbial Eden: a 30-mile-wide lake with a river flowing in, a river flowing out, and a rich river delta.

Katie Stack Morgan: To know that in this particular spot on Mars we had water here, enough water, and for long enough to fill this 30-mile diameter crater-- is a big deal for us and says that this is a special place.

If all goes according to plan, Perseverance will arrive at the Jezero Crater in February 2021. It'll explore the area for at least two years. The rock samples perseverance collects will most likely be left on the surface of Mars. But that's just the beginning of what one NASA official has described as "probably the most complex" scientific mission the agency has ever undertaken. Years later, a new rover will arrive to fetch the tubes, put them on a small rocket ship, and launch them into orbit around the red planet. Another spacecraft will already be waiting there in orbit, and the samples will be passed to it in a container the size of a soccer ball. The samples will then be transported back to our atmosphere, and dropped off on Earth.

Anderson Cooper: That does not sound possible. 

Bobby Braun: Totally possible. I guarantee you. So listen, many of these pieces we've done in piece part before.

NASA's new rover landing technology 03:25

The return part of the mission is conceived as a joint venture with the European Space Agency and has yet to be fully approved or funded.

Anderson Cooper: Is there an estimate of the cost?

Bobby Braun: We're working on that. But there's not a final, you know, number today.

Anderson Cooper: We're in the midst of a pandemic-- obviously an economic crisis, is sending a rover to Mars, is that a good idea at this time? 

Bobby Braun: I would say this is precisely the right time to make that investment. If there's anything that this pandemic has taught us is the importance of science and technology.

In March, as perseverance was being prepared for launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA went into lockdown along with much of the rest of the country because of coronavirus.

Anderson Cooper: Was there a time where you thought maybe you'd have to cancel the launch?

Bobby Braun: Well, certainly. You know, when it was first starting up here in the U.S., we were all naturally very concerned, first and foremost about the safety of our team. So we took time to kind of regroup and put up-- put forward a new plan.

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Matt Gildner works from his apartment

Under that new plan, 90% of NASA employees are working from home, including Matt Gildner, who's driving the curiosity rover on Mars right now from his apartment in Los Angeles. 

Anderson Cooper: Is it a little weird driving the rover from your one-bedroom apartment?

Matt Gildner: Oh yeah, it's definitely weird. I mean, normally I'm used to being inside a room with about 25 people and we're all, you know-- we have kind of the work hats on. And you don't have the distraction like a, you know, dump truck picking up trash outside or your dog barking. 

Anderson Cooper: Can I see your dog?

Matt Gildner: Yeah, where's-- where's Kiley at? Oh she's sleeping on the couch right now. 

Anderson Cooper: If Kiley, like, jumped on your lap or hit one of the keys, would the rover fly off a cliff?

Matt Gildner: No. Our process involves developing a plan throughout the whole day. After everything is complete and integrated and checked, we will bundle it up and send it to the spacecraft. So that's the point in time where we will be able to catch any-- you know, paw prints on our commands.

Anderson Cooper: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I would imagine you-- you're spending a good amount of your mind every day on Mars. And not in this pandemic. In a sense, every day you're journeying to Mars.

Matt Gildner: That's true. Yeah, we get to have our own little escape on another planet.

The team working on Perseverance is persevering as well. About 80 people are on site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, getting the rover ready for launch. The competition, though, is heating up. The U.S. isn't the only country getting ready to go to Mars this summer. China is preparing to send its first orbiter and rover, and the United Arab Emirates plans to send an orbiter as well. The European and Russian space agencies have created a rover that they plan to launch in two years.

Anderson Cooper: Do you see this as a race to find evidence of life?

Katie Stack Morgan: I see it more as-- we're all working together to answer this question. And we're doing it in slightly different ways. I think it really is a human endeavor. It's a human question that we're after.

Anderson Cooper: If in fact ultimately-- it turns out that there was microbial life on Mars billions of years ago, I mean, it's cool. But why does it actually matter?

Katie Stack Morgan: The idea that we would find evidence of life that wasn't on our own planet, alien life would show that you know, it can occur in other places and that there are other forms of life.

Anderson Cooper: If there's microbial life, there's no reason there couldn't be a higher form of life or a different form of life.

Katie Stack Morgan: That's right. I think the doors swing wide open to the possibilities for how life could have evolved elsewhere in the universe. And it may take us some time before we're able to find that. But if we find life on another planet, we'll know that it can happen elsewhere. It's not just here. I think it'd be a real paradigm shift in terms of how we think about our place in the universe.

Produced by Andy Court. Associate producer, Evie Salomon. Broadcast associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Joe Schanzer.

  • Anderson Cooper
    Anderson Cooper

    Anderson Cooper, anchor of CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," has contributed to 60 Minutes since 2006. His exceptional reporting on big news events has earned Cooper a reputation as one of television's pre-eminent newsmen.