Skip to main content

How NASA’s new rover will help pave the way for a human trip to Mars

On the launchpad and ready to go, NASA’s Perseverance rover is just hours away from beginning its challenging seven-month journey to Mars.

Besides looking for evidence of ancient life on the red planet and gathering samples of rock and soil for later return to Earth, the rover will also conduct research for those tasked with planning NASA’s first crewed mission to Mars, which could take place in the 2030s.

The research will involve testing various spacesuit materials to see how they stand up to the harsh Martian environment, which has a thin atmosphere and allows more radiation from the sun and cosmic rays to reach the ground.

The materials

NASA’s Amy Ross, who must be the envy of many with her “spacesuit designer” title, said in a recent piece on NASA’s website that Perseverance will be taking with it five materials designed for the outside of a spacesuit.


One of them, ortho-fabric, is already used on current spacesuits. It actually consists of three materials: Nomex, a flame-resistant material found in firefighter outfits; Gore-Tex, which is waterproof but breathable; and Kevlar, a strong synthetic fiber that’s been used in bulletproof vests.

Another of the material samples heading to Mars is Vectran, a cut-resistant material that’s currently used on the palms of spacesuit gloves. Ross said that its toughness makes it useful for astronauts conducting spacewalks on the International Space Station (ISS), where micrometeoroids sometimes strike handrails outside the orbiting outpost, creating pits with sharp edges that would damage less robust gloves.

Perseverance is also taking with it a sample of Teflon, a material long used on astronauts’ glove gauntlets and also the backs of the gloves.

“Just like a nonstick pan, it’s slippery, and it’s harder to catch and tear a fabric if it’s slick,” Ross said, adding that NASA is also sending a sample of Teflon that has a dust-resistant coating.

A piece of polycarbonate is also heading to Mars. Used for helmet bubbles and visors, the material helps reduce an astronaut’s exposure to ultraviolet light. “A nice thing about it is it doesn’t shatter,” Ross explained. “If impacted, it bends rather than breaks and still has good optical properties.”

Can they handle Mars?

The materials will be analyzed by one of Perseverance’s scientific instruments — called SHERLOC — that will also be searching for signs of ancient life. SHERLOC will be able to assess the condition of the spacesuit materials to see to what extent the radiation breaks down their chemical composition. If they stay strong, NASA can use them for crewed missions to Mars. If not, it’ll have to start work on creating more durable materials.

Martian dust

Martian dust also presents a challenge for crewed missions to the faraway planet, though Ross said her team is already developing things like seals that can keep dust out of the spacesuit bearings at the shoulders, wrists, hip, upper thighs, and ankles that give an astronaut mobility for walking, kneeling, and other movements. “We are looking for other ways to protect the suit from Martian dust over a long-duration mission,” Ross said. “We know that a coated or film material will be better than a woven material that has space between the woven yarns.”

Mars and the moon

Comparing the environment of Mars with that of the moon, Ross said that while the conditions differ, “the durability challenges — materials exposed over long periods of time at low pressures in a dusty environment — are similar.”

She continued: “Mars spacesuits will be more like ones we use for the moon and less like those for the ISS. I’m trying to make the moon suit as much like the Mars suit as possible.”

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
How your aurora photographs are helping NASA study solar storms
A coronal aurora appeared over southwestern British Columbia on May 10, 2024.

A coronal aurora appears over southwestern British Columbia on May 10, 2024. NASA/Mara Johnson-Groh

This week has seen one of the most dramatic solar storms in decades, leading to views of auroras seen around the world as charged particles from the sun interacted with Earth's atmosphere. But the events weren't only notable for the gorgeous colors seen in the sky -- they are also a way for scientists to learn about the sun and how its activity varies over time.

Read more
NASA selects 9 companies to work on low-cost Mars projects
This mosaic is made up of more than 100 images captured by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter, which operated around Mars from 1976 to 1980. The scar across the center of the planet is the vast Valles Marineris canyon system.

NASA is expanding its plans for Mars, looking at not only a big, high-budget, long-term project to bring back a sample from Mars but also smaller, lower-cost missions to enable exploration of the red planet. The agency recently announced it has selected nine private companies that will perform a total of 12 studies into small-scale projects for enabling Mars science.

The companies include big names in aerospace like Lockheed Martin and United Launch Services, but also smaller companies like Redwire Space and Astrobotic, which recently landed on the surface of the moon. Each project will get a 12-week study to be completed this summer, with NASA looking at the results to see if it will incorporate any of the ideas into its future Mars exploration plans.

Read more
NASA video maps all 72 flights taken by Mars Ingenuity helicopter
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter.

See Ingenuity’s Flight Map: 72 Helicopter Flights on Mars

NASA has shared a video (above) that maps all of the flights taken on Mars by its trailblazing Ingenuity helicopter.

Read more