This NASA rover landed on Mars, more than 130 million miles from Earth. It’s task? To continue the search for past life on the red planet.
Why NASA is Back on Mars
Published: February 23, 2021
Narrator: Curiosity, meet Perseverance.
This NASA rover just landed on Mars—more than 130 million miles from Earth. Its task? To continue the search for life on the red planet.
Mission Control: Touchdown confirmed. Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life.
Aaron Yazzie: So happy and so excited that things worked out today. Anything that NASA does I feel is for the knowledge of not only just our nation, but the world. I not only want to share it with everybody far and wide, but I specifically want to look back to my home community, the place where I come from, and share with Indigenous communities, share with the Navajo Nation all the successes that are going on with NASA because I want them to feel part of it.
Narrator: The seven-month journey to Mars for this rover ended in a successful landing in the Jezero Crater, a three-billion-year-old delta that scientists think might be home to ancient microbial life—back from when Mars was much wetter and warmer.
Moogega Cooper: If you want to set yourself up for success for finding ancient life, that is the place to go.
Narrator: For two years, Perseverance will drill into the Martian surface in hopes of collecting fossilized microbes.
Here's how it'll work: a sample tube is loaded inside a drill at the end of the rover's arm.
Aaron Yazzie: We had to come up with an entirely unique design to drill into a lot of different rocks. So it's actually a very sophisticated mechanism. After we're done drilling the depth that we want to, we do one final motion to extract the core from the inside of the rock.
Narrator: Then, the sample tube's prepared for storage inside the rover.
Jessica A. Samuels: We take the robotic arm with Martian sample inside of it and we dock it inside the belly of the rover. We want to inspect it. We want to figure out how much volume we may have collected, take some pictures of it and then we seal that tube and then go put it back into our storage rack.
Narrator: Perseverance has no way of knowing if it actually collected ancient microbes. For that, the Martian samples will have to return to Earth to be analyzed. That'd be a first. Current plans—between NASA and the European Space Agency—involve sending another lander to Mars within the decade.
Julie Townsend: Collecting samples on Mars and bringing them back to Earth is the most complex thing we've tried to do with one of our robots.
Narrator: If we succeed in bringing back the samples to study, how do we know we won't accidentally find life from Earth—microbes that hitched a ride on the spacecraft?
Kennda Lynch: We don't want to send an expensive vehicle like Perseverance to Mars and then just detect ourselves because we didn't work to make sure that we kept the spacecraft and the instruments and everything that it touches as clean as possible.
Moogega Cooper: You want to have a nice pristine sample without any Earth contamination so that’s why we work really hard to keep that spacecraft clean.
Narrator: To ensure there's no contamination, researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory had to build an entirely new clean room.
Ian Clark: We take a normal clean room and we start breaking everything down to understand additional sources of contamination and how do we make that room even cleaner. The gloves that they use, how often they need to change gloves, how often they have to change the gowns, when we can reuse things, even the computers that are used in there.
Narrator: Most importantly, the sample tubes were designed to remain impeccably clean.
Ian Clark: The gold coating is a mixture of titanium and nitrogen that is especially engineered to prevent organic compounds from sticking to the surface. These sample tubes are the cleanest things that we've ever sent to another planet by far. In fact these sample tubes are probably the cleanest thing on Earth.
Narrator: But Perseverance ins't just collecting samples. It's also testing technologies that will take interplanetary exploration to the next level.
A few months after landing, Perseverance is dropping a tiny helicopter named Ingenuity. Future explorers could use technology like this to scout and survey the landscape. The rover's also carrying a little gold box, named Moxie, that'll run tests on turning small amounts of the dangerous Martian atmosphere into breathable air.
These technologies might make it possible for humans to inhabit Mars one day. But before then, will we know if life once existed on the red planet?
Elio Morillo: Perseverance is playing a very critical role in our understanding of our place in the universe. And I think that's very noble.
Jeffrey A. Hoffman: If life exists on Mars, then almost certainly life has developed all over the universe and the universe is teeming with life.
Tanja Bosak: Maybe we won't find anything. And that'll just tell us that our one planet is so unique and miraculous.
Derrick Pitts: That question about life is the one that really perplexes and I think really drives us. Something about our desire to not be alone keeps pushing us forward in the search for life.
Narrator: And the Perseverance rover now continues that search.
Produced and Directed by: Terri Randall
Edited by: Jedd Ehrmann and Ana Aceves
Digital Producer: Ana Aceves
Production Assistance: Christina Monnen and Amanda Willis
Archival: NASA, NASA/JPL, NASA/Goddard, Storyblocks
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2021