An artist’s impression of the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars
NASA is sending a life-hunter to Mars. The Perseverance rover, which will hunt for signs of life past or present on the Red Planet, is scheduled to blast off on 30 July.
If all goes well, the rover will land on Mars in February 2021, where it will use a sophisticated suite of science instruments including 23 cameras to examine the planet’s climate and geology.
“Perseverance will bring all human senses to Mars,” said NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen during a press conference on 20 July. “It will sense the air around it, see and scan the horizon, hear the planet with microphones on the surface for the first time, feel it as it picks up samples to cache, perhaps even taste, it in a sense,” as it performs chemical analyses of the dust, he said.
Once Perseverance lands on the surface of Mars, it will release a small helicopter called Ingenuity from its underside. “We as human beings have never flown a rotorcraft, a helicopter, anywhere outside of Earth’s atmosphere, so it’s really a Wright Brothers moment on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s lead engineer, during the press conference.
Ingenuity is a technology demonstration and will only fly for a total of 15 minutes at most, but in the future such helicopters could be used to scope out inaccessible areas or as scouts for rovers and astronauts, said Aung.
The rover will also carry another technology demonstration, an instrument to extract oxygen from the carbon dioxide in Mars’s thin atmosphere, which future explorers may need to do to survive there. “Perseverance is also the bridge between science and human exploration that demonstrates how the two can support and reinforce each other,” said Zurbuchen.
The main science goal of the mission is to look for signs of life on Mars, whether that life is ancient and long dead or still around today. This is the first Mars mission to explicitly search for life since the Viking 1 and Viking 2 missions in the late 1970s.
“It’s exciting that NASA is moving past following the water and looking for signs of habitability to looking for signs of actual life,” says Sarah Stewart Johnson at Georgetown University in Washington DC. “It was ‘follow the water’ for so long, and we just kept finding the water – we found swimming pools and swimming pools’ worth of water.”
Now that we know that Mars has the ingredients for life – and that long ago it was probably far warmer and wetter than today – we are better equipped to look for signs of that life. However, even if we find clues that there might have once been living organisms on Mars, we probably won’t be sure until we can bring those clues back to Earth and examine them in the lab, says Johnson.
Perseverance is preparing for just that. It will take a series of samples as it trundles across the Martian surface, and although it doesn’t have the capability to send those samples back to Earth, NASA has another mission planned for 2026 that will pick them up and bring them back for analysis.
“If we found any evidence of life, even if it was very small, that would be completely transformative,” says Johnson. “If we found a microbe that arose on the next planet over, if lightning struck twice in this one corner of the solar system, it would suggest that our whole universe could have life on lots and lots of planets and it’s not just us alone in the dark night.”
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