Andrew Dawson, Staff Writer |
On Feb. 18, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) safely landed the Perseverance rover. The rover landed in the Jezero Crater, starting a new era of Mars exploration. This exploration is being used to discover if there is or ever was life on the red planet. The Perseverance will also be collecting rocks from Mars and returning them to Earth for the first time in history. The return is estimated to happen around 2031.
According to Jennifer Trosper, the mission’s Deputy Project Manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), “The landing went as smoothly as we had hoped. I almost feel like we’re in a dream.”
The rover landed at 3:55 p.m. after a seven-month journey from Earth. The first photographs that were captured by Perseverance were images of a dusty landscape embedded with rocks. The rover is located about two kilometers from a river delta, which was once filled with water. The mission’s goal is to travel around the Jezero Crater and collect rock samples from the river delta and an ancient river. The rover will leave the samples it has gathered around the area and a future spacecraft will collect them. The Perseverance marks the first step of a 10-year effort to bring rocks from Mars back to Earth to be examined.
Now that the Perseverance has safely landed, people are impatiently waiting to learn if there is or ever was life on Mars. NASA hopes to finally answer that question. Chief Engineer for the Planetary Science Directorate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Gentry Lee said, “To quote Carl Sagan, if we see a hedgehog staring in the camera, we would know there’s current and certainly ancient life on Mars, but based on our past experiences, such an event is extremely unlikely. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the discovery that life existed elsewhere in the universe would certainly be extraordinary.”
Over three billion years ago, the Jezero Crater was a large lake on Mars and home of a river delta. While the water in the river delta may be gone, somewhere within the 28-mile-wide crater, there could be biosignatures. These biosignatures will be able to tell if there was life on the red planet.
Ken Williford, the Deputy Project Scientist for the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission, said, “We expect the best place to look for biosignatures would be in Jezero’s lakebed or in shoreline sediments that could be encrusted with carbonate minerals, which are especially good at preserving certain kinds of fossilized life on Earth.”
The Perseverance has new instruments to search for biosignatures. The rover has a Mastcam-Z (on the rover’s mast) which can zoom in to analyze specific scientific targets. Perseverance also offers a SuperCam instrument (placed on the mast) that can fire a laser at a specific target, creating a plasma that can be analyzed to learn more about its chemical composition.
If the SuperCam’s data is intriguing, then scientists can control the rover’s arm for a better look. Perseverance has PIXL, which is an x-ray instrument that creates an x-ray beam to examine the rock for potential ancient fingerprints. Then the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence of Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) can use its laser to detect organic molecules in the rock. This will create a map of the environment and allow scientists to examine the composition and decide what cores are the most promising. When they have made this determination, they will tell Perseverance what cores they want the rover to focus on collecting.
The 2021 Perseverance rover mission is a historical expedition for not only NASA but the world in general. Hopefully, the Perseverance rover will be able to provide evidence to finally answer the question, was there ever ancient life on Mars?