It’s been said that Mars tugs at the human imagination like no other planet. “It’s there,” said astronaut Buzz Aldrin, “waiting to be reached” and this July, 2020, NASA is planning to launch a mission to grab its first ‘taste’ of the Red Planet –the only known planet inhabited solely by robots. On Thursday, 30 July, NASA will launch the Perseverance rover that will, hopefully, touch down at the Jezero Crater landing site in February 2021 as a robotic explorer.
On Monday, NASA gave its latest Mars rover Perseverance the “all clear” to launch later this week on a mission to seek out signs of ancient microbial life. “The launch readiness review is complete, and we are indeed go for launch,” administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “We are in extraordinary times right now with the coronavirus pandemic, and yet we have in fact persevered and we have protected this mission because it is so important.”
The launch will take place at 7:50 am (1150 GMT) on Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on board a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
If everything goes to plan, reports Alexandra Witze for the journal Nature, when Perseverance rover arrives it will collect samples of rock from Jezero Crater (shown below) that — one day — other spacecraft will pick up and fly back to Earth, becoming the first samples ever returned from Mars. Jezero crater, a 45-kilometre-wide crater is home to the remains of an ancient river delta. NASA researchers have detected deposits of hydrated silica from previous flybys –a mineral that’s especially good at preserving microfossils and other signs of past life.
The six-wheeled Perseverance rover, a robotic “scientist” weighing 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms), will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have installed the SuperCam Mast Unit onto the Mars 2020 rover to probe the Jezero landing site with its landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years. “It will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
A Life Bearing Billion-Year-Old Crater?
“What’s exciting is that we’ll see very soon if I’m right or wrong,” said Christopher Kremer at Brown University about a strange mineral deposit near the geologically rich terrain of Jezero Crater, the landing site for NASA’s Mars2020 rover. “So that’s a little nerve wracking,” but if it’s not a volcanic ashfall he adds, “it’s probably going to be something much stranger.”
Jezero was formed billions of year ago by a meteorite impact, reports Nature: At one point, water filled it to a depth of about 250 metres, and then flowed out — leaving behind sediments that could contain a record of life, if any ever existed there. “You see a canyon coming in and depositing the sediment,” says Caltech’s Kenneth Farley, the mission’s project scientist. “That is a major attraction.”
Jezero harbors carbonate rocks, whose chemistry could reveal how the lake’s water and the Martian atmosphere interacted in the distant past, Farley says.
Highly Choreographed Endgame
Without planetary missions such as Perseverance, the only way scientists can directly study rocks from other worlds is to analyse meteorites that have fallen to Earth. “Just waiting for [material] to arrive here on Earth would be a lot cheaper,” says Queenie Hoi Shan Chan, a planetary scientist at Royal Holloway University of London. “But we cannot just wait for it to happen, because it’s really rare.
One advantage is that in well-equipped Earthly laboratories, researchers can apply tools and techniques to understand these samples that they can’t from a small spacecraft, Chan told Nature. Sample-return missions also allow researchers to know the exact geological area their rock comes from. That is “priceless context,” says Jessica Barnes, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
In a complicated, highly choreographed endgame, NASA wants Perseverance to drill and store at least 30 tubes of Martian rock and soil. Long-term plans call for NASA and the European Space Agency to collaborate to send a second rover to collect those tubes and launch them into Martian orbit, and a third spacecraft to ferry them from Martian orbit and fly them back to Earth.
The goal is for life-bearing samples to reach Earth in 2031.