NASA’s most sophisticated rover is still due to the explosion of Mars on a mission to answer one of the most profound questions: has life ever come up on another planet?
Mission controllers set up their protection on the 28-mile-wide Jezero crater north of the planet’s equator. The landing site is one of the most promising places for any microbial Martian to have been preserved in the rocks formed when the crater had a lake nine times larger than Loch Ness.
The $ 2.7bn (£ 2.1bn) rover has a collection of tools to analyze rocks for “biosignature” – the chemical core of life – but will pick up other surface samples for collection and r return to Earth aboard a future mission.
Bad weather and technical glitches aside, the Perseverance mission will begin on its half-billion-mile journey at 12.50pm BST on Thursday when the Atlas V rocket engine is strapped to light at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
With a durable coronavirus in the southern state, few scientists and engineers will be in Florida to witness the launch and instead follow online events.
“It’s an early launch for us,” said Ken Williford, the project scientist at NASA’s jet propulsion lab in Pasadena, California. “I need to be around 3am, although I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep
“Our plan was to get thousands of people there. Our science team alone is 400 people and everyone was going to be invited. It’s very different. We will celebrate from afar.”
Even without the pandemic it struggles with, the mission was a challenge. Beyond the development of powerful new instruments and an improved autopilot system, engineers built a helicopter to send the Rover, the first to take to the air on another planet.
Called Ingenuity, the 1.8kg helicopter will be a “pathfinder” for future rotorcraft to scout in front of robotic rovers, and perhaps even astronauts, and explore land beyond the reach of any one, said MiMi Aung, the company’s manager. the Ingenuity project. If Perseverance touches safely, Ingenuity will try up to five flights over 30 days, restrained in Martian’s thin air with four 1.2-meter-long rotating carbon fiber blades at 2,400rpm.
“Nerves and nail bites will come to the surface,” Aung told the Guardian. “The survival of the first night for us will be huge.”
But first he has to get there. Trips to Mars are big feats and the recent successes of NASA’s Mars Insight and Curiosity missions do nothing to change that. The low Martian gravity and rare atmosphere make entry, landing, and landing so crowded that flight engineers are prone to using the word “terror”.
After seven months of interplanetary travel, in February 2021 the spacecraft is to be drilled into the Martian sky at high speed whose heat shield will look at 2,370C (4,298F). With thrusters to control, the probe will restrain itself towards its landing site, launch a parachute and then cut loose, descending the last 10km to the surface on eight retrorockets.
All right, Perseverance will land in the Jezero crater at the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin north of the Martian equator. The site was picked up by more than 60 candidates because of its promise to preserve signs of life. The crater was once home to an ancient lake and delta river that could have collected and buried Martian microbes and locked them in rocks made of compacted clay or mud.
Mounted on the edge of his robotic arm are two instruments that Perseverance will use to look for signs of past life, or rocks promising to return to Earth. The Pixl (a planetary instrument for X-ray lithochemistry) can explode rocks with a small but strong beam to reveal their elemental shape. Another tool, called Sherloc, will scan rocks for organic and mineral molecules. Hints of life can be not only in organics, but also the texture and patterns of the compounds that scientists see in rocks.
“It is very likely that any signs of life we find will be very ambiguous, very difficult to interpret, and difficult or impossible to obtain true scientific consensus about,” Williford said. “We have very good abilities to find potential signs of life, but we need to go back to those samples and get a lot of different people studying them with a lot of different techniques for years to reach something like scientific consensus.”
Mark Sephton, an astrobiologist at Imperial College London, is part of the team that decides what half a kilo of rock will bring back to Earth, the unprecedented wind that NASA could get with the European Space Agency in 2031.
“We may be about to cross the ceiling quite deep,” he said. “We talk about the possibility of finding life on Mars, but people forget that if it happens and it’s conclusive, that’s step by step. That’s a dividing line and you never go back. Tell us that everywhere in the universe , where you found the right conditions, the right raw materials, and a little bit of time, that life should begin.
“I’m excited, but nervous that anything can happen that stops her life’s opportunity. It’s such a privilege to be involved. It’s historic. I don’t want anything to go wrong.”