On Thursday, February 18, the United States landed a spacecraft on the surface of the Red Planet, and by doing so, NASA catapulted onto the pages of Science Good News.
But why? What attributes of this mission warrant its inclusion on the pages of Science Good News?
It isn’t the first successful rover to land on Mars. Over the last few decades, NASA successfully landed rovers on Mars in 1997 (Sojourner), 2004 twice (Opportunity and Spirit) (Sojourner), 2004 twice (Opportunity and Spirit) and again in 2012 (Curiosity).
Nor are we the only country that is making the effort. On February 9, the United Arab Emirates put its probe, Hope, into orbit around the Mars to study the planet’s atmosphere and weather. A day later, Hope was joined in orbit by the Chinese spacecraft, Tianwen-1. Unlike Hope, Tianwen-1 will drop a rover to the Mars surface sometime in May or June.
The three spaceships sailed to Mars more or less simultaneously, because currently Mars and Earth are fairly close to each other, a mere 126 million miles apart, a distance that will not be repeated for another two years. And when you are expecting a spaceship to make the trip of that distance, it’s prudent to let the planetary orbits coincide, to bring Earth and the Red Planet as close as possible before you set off. Yet despite the similarities there are some notable differences between this rover and its predecessors, that make its mission unique. First, the Mars rover, Perseverance, will “follow the water” and transverse a path up to the rim of the Jezero Crater. Along the way, the rover will explore a long-dried river delta, searching for chemical traces of fossilized microbial life. Second, while traveling on its way, Perseverance, like some giant interplanetary
groundhog, will dig, excavating small holes and gathering rock and sediment samples. These samples will be packaged into containers and left on the Martian surface, to be picked up by another rover that has yet to be launched from Earth. The idea is that these samples will be shuttled from one spacecraft to the next, ultimately making their way to earth sometime during the mid-2030’s. If successfully accomplished, Mars will join the moon as the only off-earth bodies in the solar system from which we humans have successfully collected solid samples. As if that wasn’t enough, Perseverance landed on Mars carrying a passenger, the 4-pound helicopter, Ingenuity. In a few months, Ingenuity will be deployed, and will undergo a series of test flights through the Martian atmosphere. The Martian atmosphere is less than 1% of the density of earth’s and flying an unmanned aerial vehicle in such rarefied air would be the equivalent of piloting a drone at an elevation of roughly 100,000 feet. It may not be possible, but NASA is going to give it a go. For some, the question of why bother may not have been answered by any of the above, for others it may ring true as, “if you have to ask, you probably wouldn’t understand.” Regardless, right now, two spaceships from two different countries are orbiting Mars, while a rover from a third sits on the Martian surface. Over the next few months, samples will be taken and stored in sterilized containers on the Martian surface, and soon a aerial drone will spread its wings and attempt to fly across the Martian landscape. Awe inspiring, indeed!