In the early hours of Friday, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover landed on the Martian surface. Perseverance’s findings would almost certainly determine the next few decades of Mars exploration. A NASA scientist discusses why and how this is possible.
Perseverance is more than a Rover Mission. Perseverance is the most complex, costly, and specialized mobile laboratory ever sent to Mars.
The outcome of the experiments on Perseverance will undoubtedly shape the next couple of decades of Mars exploration – it will decide the trajectory of the quest for life and a possible manned mission to Mars.
Mars Science in the past 30 years
Since the first generation missions in the 1960s, we’ve gone a long way in our interpretation of Mars. The Viking missions conducted the first chemical analysis of Martian soil and four biology experiments to detect biological activity in the mid-1970s. There was no definitive proof of existence in the experiments.
In the early 1980s, scientists hypothesized that some meteorites might have a source area on Mars rather than the asteroid belt, based on mineralogic structure and rock texture.
The isotopic composition of rare gases (Xenon, Krypton, Neon, and Argon) mirrored the isotopic ratios of the Martian atmosphere measured by the Viking spacecraft, according to a report published in 1984. This discovery enabled geochemists to research Martian samples, and it significantly improved our understanding of Mars’ geochemical evolution.
In the twentieth century, Mars was thought to be a dry planet. In 2001, the Gamma-Ray Spectrometer onboard the Mars Odyssey spacecraft discovered an intriguing hydrogen signature that suggested the presence of water ice. However, there was some ambiguity since hydrogen can be found in various other molecules, including organic compounds.
NASA sent a spacecraft to land at the Martian South Pole in 2007 to search for water availability. With the aid of its robotic arm, the spacecraft tested the soil surrounding the lander and confirmed the presence of water on Mars for the first time.
The enduring fascination with Mars
Why are scientists so fascinated by Mars? And what about the explorer-adventurer in us all? There are two main explanations for this.
First and foremost, Mars is a world where life may have arisen before.
Earth’s existence began 3.8 billion years ago. Around 4 billion years ago, conditions on early Mars were somewhat close to those on Earth.
It had a thick atmosphere, which allowed water to remain stable on Mars’ soil. If the environments on Mars were close to those on Earth, there’s a good chance that microscopic organisms might have originated there.
Second, Mars is the only planet that humans can travel or live for an extended period.
Is there life on Mars?
Persistence is the first step in a multi-step process to return samples from Mars. The analysis of the returned rock samples in advanced labs worldwide would ideally offer a definitive response as to whether life ever lived on Mars.
The phases in the Sample Return are as follows:
Perseverance will gather rock and soil samples in 43 cigar-sized tubes as the first stage. The samples will be collected, the canisters locked, and the canisters left on the site.
A Mars Fetch Rover (provided by the European Space Agency) will land, drive, and collect all samples from the various locations before returning to the lander in the second process.
The canisters would then be transferred to the Ascent Vehicle by the Fetch Rover. The Mars Ascension Vehicle will collide with an Orbiter, transporting the samples back to Earth.
MSR, or Mars Sample Return, is the name of this long-term mission.
MSR will transform our view of Mars’ evolutionary past. If MSR is good, we will determine whether or not there was microscopic life on Mars.
MSR, on the other hand, has its drawbacks. MSR will be doomed if one of the modules, such as the Fetch Rover or the Mars Ascent Vehicle fails. The strategic danger is secret.
Looking for underground water on Mars
The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment would be carried by Perseverance (RIMFAX). RIMFAX can chart the subsurface structure at the landing site in great detail. The instrument would also search for subsurface water on Mars, which, if discovered, will significantly aid the case for a human expedition or a human settlement on the planet.
Can Helicopter fly on Mars?
The Mars Helicopter is a miniature robot. It’s a technological showcase to see how the helicopter will fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere.
Because of the low density of the Martian atmosphere, the chances of successfully flying a helicopter or plane on Mars are slim. Long-distance transportation on Mars would focus on vehicles driven by rocket engines for ascent and descent.
We’re probably a decade away from two major landmarks of Mars exploration: a human expedition to the Red Planet and a definitive response to the issue of whether Mars once harboured – or still harbours – microscopic life. Perseverance is expected to shed light on all of these issues.
Producing oxygen on Mars
A fair cost is needed for a human expedition to Mars to become a reality.
For prices to be acceptable, a technology and facilities to produce oxygen on Mars using raw materials found on Mars must be in place.
Human flights to Mars would be prohibitively costly and impractical without a reliable method of producing oxygen on the Red Planet. Elon Musk’s attempt to provide commercial transportation to Mars would be jeopardized without a reliable oxygen production plan.
The MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment) instrument on Perseverance can use 300 watts of power to obtain around 10 grams of oxygen from ambient carbon dioxide.