Perseverance, NASA’s latest Mars rover, touched down on the planet’s Jezero Crater on Thursday, nearly seven months after it first launched from Cape Canaveral. The mission, one of the space agency’s most ambitious yet, will seek to answer whether there is evidence that microbial life once existed on Mars.
Perseverance carries a host of equipment designed to search for clues of ancient life, but also to evaluate the conditions of present-day Mars with an eye toward potential human exploration. The information the rover collects will help determine how future astronauts could survive during potential stays on the planet, using technologies developed from our evolving understanding of its alien landscape.
Watch the landing in the player above.
A key facet of Perseverance’s mission involves collecting and storing geologic samples that researchers hope can eventually be returned to Earth for study. Successfully transporting rocks and dust from Mars would be a scientific achievement much like when samples collected from the moon during NASA’s Apollo missions were brought back decades ago.
“Samples from Mars have the potential to profoundly change our understanding of the origin, evolution and distribution of life on Earth, and elsewhere in the solar system,” Lori Glaze, who directs NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said during a news conference last month.
This animation shows the events that occur in the final minutes of the nearly seven-month journey that NASA’s Perseverance rover takes to Mars. Animation by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour, based on NASA images
Why Jezero Crater?
Perseverance is set to land in Jezero Crater, which researchers believe was home to a lake about the size of Lake Tahoe about 3.5 billion years ago, back when Mars supported a warm, wet climate, rather than the dry and cold one it has today. Perseverance will explore different landscapes within the crater, including an area into which a river once flowed, creating a delta where it met the lake.
The ancient river could have transported “organic or biological material” that may have “concentrated” in the mud at the bottom of the lake, said Briony Horgan, a Purdue University researcher and associate professor of planetary science who is part of the Mars 2020 science team, during last month’s news conference. Orbital data suggests that “signs of organic materials and life” could be preserved in specific regions of the crater, she added.
Though located a world away, Lake Salda, #Turkey, has geological similarities to Jezero Crater on #Mars. In fact, researchers even did field work at Lake Salda to prepare for #CountdownToMars and @NASAPersevere. https://t.co/jrKoWrbVwe pic.twitter.com/xB2GGgYfbr
— NASA Earth (@NASAEarth) July 30, 2020
Researchers believe that the ancient lake was “chemically similar” to one on Earth today. Turkey’s Lake Salda, Horgan continued, features carbonate minerals that are particularly good at preserving long-dead organisms. The same minerals have been identified in parts of the Jezero Crater, which scientists have singled out as locations to look for potential well-preserved evidence of past Martian microbial life.
A technology testing ground
“We’re going to be able to watch ourselves for the first time land on another planet,” Matt Wallace, who serves as deputy project manager for Mars 2020, said at the news conference.
The rover also features an experimental instrument called MOXIE, aimed at testing out technology that could help future astronauts. While oxygen makes up 21 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, that element is just 0.13 percent of the one on Mars, which is about 96 percent carbon dioxide, according to NASA. MOXIE is designed to transform that carbon dioxide into oxygen “like a tree does,” demonstrating the kind of technology future explorers could use to generate oxygen at a larger scale, both to breathe and to fuel spacecraft.
Ingenuity, a small helicopter accompanying Perseverance, will mark the first time researchers have attempted “controlled flight on another planet,” where the composition of the atmosphere and the temperature range is so different from our own.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, described the experiment as “a true extraterrestrial Wright Brothers moment” during the news conference.
Implications for the future
The researchers behind the Perseverance mission emphasize that its goals will be difficult to pull off, and it’s impossible to predict whether geologic evidence of ancient life will be found on our celestial neighbor. But Mars 2020 project scientist Ken Farley said during last month’s news conference that if the rover does successfully collect potential “biosignatures,” and pave the way for their return, that feat would inform “decades” of research.
Even if Perseverance does not identify any such evidence, that knowledge — the revelation that a “habitable” location beyond Earth did not indeed support any type of life — would be meaningful in its own right, Farley added.
“It would tell us something important: that habilitablity alone is not sufficient, that something else has to be present — some perhaps magic spark that causes life to occur,” Farley said.