By Sai Rayasam, Waukee High School Junior, Applied Sciences, Summer 2020
Caption: An artist’s depiction of NASA’s Perseverance rover operating on the surface of Mars. Perseverance is set to take off on July 30th and land at the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater a little after 3:40 p.m. EST on Feb. 18, 2021, hoping to find signs of life. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Mars has been an object of wonder for history’s greatest minds. It was first observed by ancient cultures as a pale pink dot that was only visible in the early morning or late night, but when Galileo built his famous telescope in 1609, he peered through the lens and made the first up-close observation of Mars. He did not detect any surface detail, but he noticed it was not fully round. Fifty years later, Christiaan Huygens made the first practical sketch of Mars’ surface features, making very accurate depictions that are still used today. As these discoveries progressed and the similarities between Mars and Earth started to appear, many began to fantasize that life forms could exist on Mars, but little evidence existed to support this belief. Only in the present is the evidence mounting that it was possible for life to exist on Mars, or even for it to be there right now. This month, three missions are set to take off to determine the status of life on Mars.1
Between July 20th and July 22nd, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter is scheduled to take off for Mars aboard a Japanese rocket. Hope will study the climate and atmosphere of Mars to determine if such conditions make it possible for life. China’s Tianwen-1 mission is also scheduled to launch in the same month-long window as Hope (when Mars aligns with Earth, making travel between them easier). Tianwen-1’s rover will study ice and water under the surface, and it will also measure rock compositions to further the knowledge of Mars’ geology. However, the most promising rover launching this month is NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is scheduled to launch between July 30th and August 15th. It plans to touch down in a region of Mars known as Jezero Crater on February 18th, 2021. Measuring 45 kilometers across, the crater is home to a multi-billion-year-old river delta that may have preserved signs that life once existed on the planet.
Equipped with cutting edge instruments, Perseverance will probe the crater meticulously. The rover’s outward appearance is strikingly similar to Curiosity–NASA’s previous rover that touched down on Mars in 2012 and found evidence of liquid water in Mars’ past.2,3 It even has the same landing system and rocket-powered crane to touchdown on the Martian surface. However, while similar in appearance, under the hood, Perseverance differs greatly. Perseverance benefits from a number of upgrades, such as hardened wheels to better cope with Martian terrain and a more sophisticated toolkit to analyze data samples. Furthermore, while Curiosity’s tools were better equipped to study the habitability of Mars, Perseverance will be better suited to directly look for evidence of life itself. Ken Farley, the project scientist for Perseverance at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, highlights some of the tools aboard Perseverance:
“On the robotic arm, we have an instrument called PIXL, which measures the elemental distribution in a postage-stamp-sized area of rock. In that same area, we can take visual imagery with an instrument called WATSON. And we can measure the distribution of organic matter with an instrument called SHERLOC. These things together provide the most compelling way to find evidence of the kind of simple life that might have existed on Mars.” 3
The type of evidence Farley is looking for is quite unclear, and there is a wide range of possibilities of what Perseverance could find. What scientists most hope for are signs of fossilized microbial life hidden under carbonate rocks. These rocks might also be harboring ancient stromatolites, which would indicate that primitive organisms (such as cyanobacteria) once existed on Mars. Perseverance itself will not be smart enough to understand the evidence, though. One of the rover’s surprising key objectives is to collect samples and store them in caches on the Martian surface. The plan is then to return to Mars in a decade, retrieve these caches, and transport them back to Earth for analysis. The logistics of the future mission is still unclear, and it is so complex that it will most likely take an international effort. The rover will also attempt to produce oxygen captured from carbon dioxide in the air, which would gauge the possibility for Mars to sustain human life. Furthermore, it will carry the first ground-penetrating radar on Mars, which will detect water up to 10 meters deep. If that is not enough, Perseverance even has its own “helicopter” called Ingenuity, which will be deployed as a first attempt at aerial flight in another world. After it explores Jezero Crater, the rover will be driven to study a nearby region called Midway, where it will continue its search for life.3
Although Hope and Tianwen-1 are noble efforts, the ingenuity of Perseverance helps it take center stage in this next act of exploration. With many tricks up its sleeves, Perseverance is by far the most ambitious mission. Its best trick of all, however, is how close it will bring us to a new frontier in science. Projects like Perseverance are valiant steps to figure out if we are truly not alone in the universe, and if we were ever to find life, we would learn more about ourselves than ever before. As Carl Sagan once said, “In the deepest sense, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for ourselves” (Sagan, 1979, p. 314-315).
- Snyder, D. (2002, January). An Observational History of Mars. University Lowbrow Astronomers. Retrieved July 13, 2020, from http://umich.edu/~lowbrows/reflections/2001/dsnyder.7.html
- NASA (n.d). Mars Curiosity Rover. NASA Science Mars Exploration Program. Retrieved July 13, 2020 from https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/mission/science/results/
- O’Callaghan J. (2020, July 7). Summer on Mars: NASA’s Perseverance Rover Is One of Three Missions Ready to Launch. Scientific American. Retrieved July 13, 2020 from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/summer-on-mars-nasas-perseverance-rover-is-one-of-three-missions-ready-to-launch/
- Sagan, C. (1979). The quest for extraterrestrial intelligence. In Broca’s brain. Random.