NASA safely landed a new robotic rover on Mars Thursday and began its most ambitious endeavor in decades to directly investigate whether there ever was life on the now barren red planet.
While the agency has completed other missions to Mars, the $ 2.7 billion robotic explorer named Perseverance has scientific tools that offer expanded possibilities for finding life beyond Earth. About the size of a car, the rover, with its sophisticated cameras, lasers that can analyze the chemical makeup of Martian rocks, and ground penetrating radar, can identify the chemical signatures of fossilized microbial life that may have thrived on Mars there was another car planet full of running water.
“Now the fun really starts,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, during a post-landing press conference.
NASA’s previous missions showed that in the distant past some places were warm, wet, and habitable. Now is the time to find out if there were ever microscopic residents there.
“It’s an enormous endeavor that lies ahead, and it has enormous scientific potential to be truly transformative.” Kenneth Williford, a deputy project scientist for the mission, said during a press conference Wednesday. “The question is, ‘Has Mars ever been a living planet?'”
Mars has been brought more and more into the spotlight by researchers on Earth. The United Arab Emirates and China both started orbiting the planet last month, joining an armada of European and American spacecraft that have already explored it from space. And private entrepreneurs look into the neighboring world. Some like Elon Musk imagine that maybe one day people could live there.
The rover will start a NASA plan to be carried out over the next decade, and it could bring samples back to Earth from Mars, where scientists will have even more opportunities to find something that signals our Planet is not the only place where life was ever found.
The mission will also attempt to get a small experimental helicopter, Ingenuity, to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere – something that has never been achieved before. Successful tests of this marscope could point the way to new methods for searching on the surface of Mars and other worlds from the sky.
Successful testing of the helicopter would be “a true extraterrestrial moment for the Wright Brothers,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Science Administrator.
NASA has landed a number of rovers on Mars since the 1990s. Everyone has revolutionized the human understanding of Mars.
The Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed in 2004, followed unmistakable signs of water that flowed billions of years ago. The Curiosity rover, which arrived in 2012, quickly determined that its location, the 96 mile wide Gale Crater, was once a freshwater lake, an environment that was clearly habitable, although it wasn’t equipped to answer whether microbes once existed Inhabited lake.
In contrast, Perseverance has the tools to search for complex carbon-based molecules that could be the remains of previous microbes.
“We’re looking for lifelike shapes and lifelike compositions,” said Dr. Williford. “Chemical compositions – the elements, the minerals, the molecules, the organic molecules that we know are connected to life – we look for all these things that come together.”
The backdrop for the mission’s studies is Jezero, a 30 mile wide crater that was once a large lake filled by a river delta. The rover will crawl along the ancient delta, scrolling its sediment heaps in search of chemical signals from microbes that died out when Mars went cold and barren.
But perseverance will most likely fail to provide definitive evidence of past life. Another part of his mission is to be the first step in a complicated robot game of pick-up sticks that will eventually bring some of the stones back to Earth for scientists to study up close.
Through perseverance, rock samples are drilled, sealed in tubes, and then dropped onto the surface. A later European Space Agency rover will trace Perseverance’s path to pick up the tubes and transfer them to a small rocket that will be launched into space. The samples will then be transferred to another spacecraft in orbit around Mars to return to Earth sometime in the early 2030s.
Persistence was the third robot visitor from Earth to arrive on the red planet this month. Last week, two more spacecraft, Hope from the United Arab Emirates and Tianwen-1 from China, entered orbit around Mars.
But NASA’s spacecraft didn’t go into orbit first. Instead, a direct route to the surface was taken.
At 3:48 p.m. Eastern Time, air traffic controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mission Operations Center near Pasadena, Calif., Received a message from Perseverance that it had entered the Martian atmosphere at a speed of more than 12,000 mph. The spaceship began the landing maneuvers that would bring it to a standstill in just seven minutes of fear.
All anyone on earth could do was watch and hope the perseverance went as planned.
Mars is currently 126 million miles from Earth. Radio signals transmitted at the speed of light take more than 11 minutes to get from there to here. That is, when the news of the start of the landing sequence reached Earth, the rover had already been on Mars for four minutes. The only uncertainty was whether it had arrived safely in one piece or crashed into many pieces, another man-made crater on the surface of Mars.
The atmosphere at the NASA Operations Center – less crowded than on previous Mars landings due to the precautionary measures required by the coronavirus pandemic – was largely thoughtfully calm.
At 3:55 p.m., cheers broke out in the control room as perseverance hit the surface.
As planned, the landing system set the rover just over a mile southeast of the river delta on a flat spot that scientists plan to explore near the boundary between two types of rock, an area that scientists could tell a lot about the geological history of the area.
“This is a great place,” said Kenneth Farley, the project scientist, at the post-landing press conference.
Much of the surrounding terrain was rougher. “We found the parking lot and hit it,” said Allen Chen, head of the engineering team that designed Perseverance’s landing.
Matt Wallace, the rover’s assistant project manager, described the nagging worries of trying to make the landing.
“It consumes you,” he said. “It becomes part of you. In some ways it’s still hard to believe that we made it and that we are done. “
The pandemic had made the task even more complicated when the rover’s teams rushed to Earth last year to reach an immovable launch date last July when Earth and Mars were close enough. If they had missed that, the rover would have had to stay on Earth for another two years.
“The pandemic hit and almost the worst time for this mission,” Wallace said.
Various speakers during the press conference described the difficulties in adjusting to the new working conditions, but the team made adjustments and the mission stayed on schedule.
Praise rolled in.
“About an hour after landing, I got a call from the President of the United States,” said Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator. “And his first words were, ‘Congratulations, man.'”
In the first few weeks, the devices are tested, the instruments switched on and the first short trips made. Then NASA will focus on testing its experimental helicopter.
Perseverance will be using the 4-pound flying machine in the coming weeks. If the Ingenuity helicopter works, it will be the first such flight in the atmosphere of another world in the solar system.
Flying on Mars is no trivial undertaking. There isn’t a lot of air there to push against to create buoyancy. On the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is only 1/100 as dense as that of Earth. The lower gravity – a third of Earth’s gravity – helps get into the air. But taking off from the surface of Mars is like flying through air as thin as that at 100,000 feet on Earth.
Ingenuity is the flying equivalent of Sojourner, NASA’s first Mars rover, which landed on the red planet in 1997. Even though it was the size of a microwave oven and just a demonstration of the basic technology, scientists could already see the benefits of driving to explore a variety of rocks and surface features, rather than sitting in one place like the earlier Viking landers.
With NASA’s rover on the surface, space watchers will soon turn their eyes back to China’s Tianwen-1 mission. As it orbits Mars, the spaceship prepares for its own rover landing. In May or June, the mission’s lander and unnamed rover will attempt to settle in a basin called Utopia Planitia. If successful, this researcher will study the region’s ice composition and potentially help future astronauts understand what resources will be available to them as they make their way to the red planet.