The Research For Life on the Red Planet is Getting Serious
Discussing a recent mission to Mars in the hope of getting more answers about the presence or absence of life on the red planet.
A lot is going on on Mars next spring. In sequence, three spacecraft will arrive on the planet and join the dozens of ships already orbiting Mars. In recent weeks, two newcomers have launched two spacecraft to investigate Mars: Al-Amal from the United Arab Emirates (meaning hope) and Chinese Tianwen-1 (meaning “question to heaven”).
The third spacecraft is NASA’s Mars 2020, which has a rover endurance that has just been successfully launched from Florida. Although this explorer will only be one of many explorers on the red planet, right now our best bet is to find life there.
Sudden activity noise is the result of planetary dynamics: every two years, the orbits of Earth and Mars align so that they are closest to each other. This results in shorter interplanetary transit times in just six months. The next launch window will last until 2022 – when ExoMars is expected to join the European Space Agency in 2022.
It is legitimate to ask why we continue to send rockets to Mars. Sure, we’ve taken enough photos of the surface and landscape to know that there used to be water, but it’s gone now? Yes – but there is still a puzzle to be solved: When does the water run out and why? And of course, the biggest question of all: is there (or is there) life on Mars?
The three missions have different objectives: Hope will orbit the planet for at least two Earth years (one Martian year) and get data on the timing of Mars-like meteorological satellites orbiting Earth. Tianwen-1 will orbit Mars and carry a motorbike to surface the Utopia Planitia, where it will analyze the ground and take surface photographs.
Persistence will arrive almost at the same time – but several thousand kilometers away in Jezero Crater. It is deposited on the surface using sky-crane technology (see video below), the same method Curiosity implemented with success in 2012.
Persistence brings with it several scientific instruments that can measure everything commonly measured on Mars: the chemistry and mineralogy of rock and soil, the amount and type, or the organic matter present on and just below the Surface is present, and so on. However, there are two other features of the mission that make it unique.
The first was a helicopter/drone named Ingenuity which slid under the rover. It will fly and run for persistence before landing away from the plow. It’s uncertain how long the drone’s range will be – although the flight will only take a few minutes and Ingenuity will land just meters from the rover.
The flight idea is to test the concept of atmospheric flight on Mars. Ultimately, drones are expected to fly farther and longer distances. This can assist explorer drivers by identifying features worth exploring and hazards to avoid.
A resourceful drone. NASA / JPL-Caltech
The second unique feature is the drilling and caching system. Stability was the first explorer to penetrate a core about ten centimeters long and one centimeter in diameter and pull it out of the borehole completely. In terms of resistance, samples were taken from various rock types as they passed through the crater floor. The breakthrough core will likely be deposited in small stacks – cache – as early as 2027 and then for transport back to Earth (estimated time of arrival is not yet known, but maybe around spring 2032).
Why is returning samples from Mars so important? With the instruments brought by Perseverance, a relatively complex chemical analysis of rock and soil can be carried out. Although instruments and measurements are great feats, they don’t have the complete equipment we use on earth to extract every drop of information from a rock.
Testing to examine organic compounds – and whether they may be of biological origin – requires a variety of different analyzes that are too complex and complex to carry out on Mars. Boiling acids, washing alcohol, adding chemicals, removing solids are the chemical steps required to extract and separate organic molecules from their rocky hosts. This cannot happen on Mars (for now).
In practice, the scales are weighed and measured item by item and, in some cases, analyzed for the individual atoms that make up the material. This will be an international effort – there is already a multinational body (MSPG-2) that prepares the requirements for an initial set of analyzes and determines how samples will be stored, curated, and then distributed to the wider scientific community.
There’s another reason to return samples from Mars – the future of human exploration on Mars. If we send people to Mars, we need to know how to get them back. We haven’t returned anything directly from any planetary body since the astronauts of Apollo 17 left the moon in December 1972. Yes, we captured the comet and asteroid chunks and brought them back to Earth – but the mission didn’t land, didn’t meet, and come back.
We’ve explored Mars for a long time: more than 150 years with telescopes, 50 years in orbit, and 20 years with explorers. It is only 12 years before we can analyze Mars in our laboratory.
Persistence to get things done is a gift from humanity. We hope this explorer lives up to his name.