Recently, NASA’s Perseverance rover (equipped with the Ingenuity helicopter) landed on Mars and is investigating the crater Jezero, a place where scientists think they might fight find possible signs of life through the leftover marks of deltas and rivers and the rocks that might contain life-signalling minerals. The Perseverance rover is only a part of the future of Mars exploration, there are several future missions which will help scientists discover more about Mars’ past. These missions are high cost, high risk endeavors. But even if a piece of equipment breaks down, data can still be collected and analysed up to the point of failure.
NASA’s Perseverance rover made headlines around the world on February 18, 2021, seven months after it’s launch on July 30, 2021, when it successfully landed on Mars. The mission has generated excitement and some hope that it will enable us to finally answer the question of whether we are alone in the universe. However, those unfamiliar with the mission might wonder what all of the hype is about. What exactly is Perseverance, what makes it so special, and how realistic are the high expectations surrounding the mission?
What is Perseverance?
Perseverance is a six-wheeled rover equipped with 23 cameras and a drill. The rover is powered by plutonium which could enable it to continue exploring Mars for over 10 years. Perseverance is part of the Mars 2020 Mission, which falls under the Mars Exploration Program. The mission’s main goal is to “seek signs of ancient life.” To accomplish this, it will analyze environments that could’ve potentially supported life in the past in the crater known as Jezero, search for signs of possible past life in these environments, and collect samples of Martian rocks and soil which will later be sent back to earth. Perseverance will also help humans prepare for future physical human exploration of Mars by testing methods of producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.
Mars Mission Plan
The landing of Perseverance on February 21st was one of the first steps in a much longer process. After Perseverance leaves its metal canisters of rock and soil samples on Martian ground, a smaller rover will be launched and sent to Mars, where it will collect these canisters, load them up into a protective container, and place them into a small rocket known as the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). MAV will be launched into Mars’ orbit and will then be collected by a European satellite, which will bring these samples back to Earth. The satellite is estimated to not return until 2031, by which point the sample container will be packaged into a heavily protected capsule and sent down to Earth. After the samples have been collected, the scientists will be able to study these Martian rocks and soil using advanced technologies.
History of Mars
Although it will be a decade before we start to learn the results of the Perseverance mission, many scientists are hopeful that it will eventually provide conclusive evidence that life existed on Mars. To contextualize these expectations, it is important to understand why Mars is considered a likely place for extraterrestrial life. Mars might not seem hospitable because its thin atmosphere makes it vulnerable to the sun’s radiation. Moreover, it is very dry, and most of its water is now locked up in polar ice caps. This is a problem because it is widely accepted that liquid water is the key to potential life. However, scientists now believe that in the past, Mars was very different. Between 3.7 and 4.1 billion years ago, there were volcanoes that thickened Mars’ atmosphere by releasing gases. This enabled clouds to form and caused rain to fall. The flowing water on Mars’ surface created river valleys and lakes, and this is evident from the surface features that scientists see on Mars today.
Location of Investigation
Image of Jezero Crater taken by instruments on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)
CC BY-NC 2.0 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
The unique geological characteristics of Jezero, the Martian crater where Perseverance will be conducting its investigations, make it a particularly promising place to search for extraterrestrial life. Scientists believe that the rocks in Jezero may date to the window around 4 billion years ago when Mars was most habitable, with a thick atmosphere and flowing water. On the western edge of Jezero, there was a river that carried small pieces of sediment from upstream and dropped them down into the bottom of the crater, thus forming a delta. Conditions in this area where the lake and delta were would have been perfect for microbial life to survive. Earth’s deltas often have large amounts of organic material in them, so it is possible that Jezero’s delta may have some form of organic material hidden in the dry sediment that is present today. In fact, earlier observations from flybys suggest that the rocks along the delta might contain Carbonates, which are often associated with coral reefs, fossils, and ancient life. Although carbonates are relatively common on Earth, they are rare on Mars, making Jezero a particularly exciting place to explore.
Despite its exciting potential, the mission is not without challenges and limitations. According to NASA, the Perseverance rover itself cost nearly $2.7 billion and the Ingenuity helicopter, which accompanies Perseverance, cost an additional $80 million to build. Another issue is that the complexity of the missions means that there are numerous chances for things to go wrong. “The most challenging aspect of Mars Sample Return” says David Spencer, the manager of the Mars Sample Return campaign at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “is just the long chain of events that all need to be successful.” For instance, when the Ingenuity’s rotors failed a high-speed spin-up test on April 9th, the helicopter’s first flight had to be delayed. Although the problem was quickly resolved and the Ingenuity was flown successfully on April 19th, a more serious problem could mean even longer delays or even jeopardize the whole mission.
Nevertheless, while these concerns may be valid, NASA is hopeful that the mission will pay off. The $2.7 billion price tag may sound expensive but other Mars missions have cost even more. For instance, accounting for inflation, the Curiosity rover cost $3.3 billion and the probes Vikings 1 and 2 cost at least twice as much as the Perseverance. Moreover, even if the mission fails to find any source of potential life on Mars, there will still be much that we would learn from this mission. Samples collected by Perseverance could provide more insight into the history of Mars and also potentially predict what may happen to Earth in the future. Thus, the excitement of the scientific community about the Perseverance rover’s landing is justified, and with perseverance, we may look forward to the next phases of this mission.
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