By Diya Sadhu
Has life ever existed on Mars? That is the question asked by a host of scientists, particularly a team of them working on the Perseverance mission. This new initiative, established by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is meant to explore the possibility that there was, or still is, life on Mars. It is particularly fortunate that technology has advanced to the point where cosmic robotic exploration can help scientists test this thesis on Mars, the closest planet with a substantial chance of life.
NASA’s Perseverance Rover accomplished its first drive on the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021. The world watched as it explored the Martian landscape- more specifically Jezero Crater. While this crater is one of hundreds on Mars, what sets it apart is that scientists believe it to have once held a body of water. The inflow and outflow channel surrounding the crater serve as evidence that the lake was once there- and that it was once filled to the top with water. Katy Morgan, the Deputy Project Scientist for this mission, claims that Jezero Crater contains “one of the most beautifully preserved delta deposits on Mars”. Not to mention it creates the ideal living conditions for a diverse set of microorganisms to survive. A combination of these factors made Jezero Crater the ideal landing site for this mission.
The NASA team worked tirelessly to improve their model in order to complete this important mission. They updated Perseverance to accommodate new scientific goals such as a new microphone feature. The microphone will add another of the human senses, of hearing, on another planet. Another updated feature of Perseverance, is its new-found movement. Unlike its previous model, Curiosity, Perseverance can self-drive for up to 200 meters per day while simultaneously creating a map of the ground as the wheels drive over it. The crown jewel of these improvements, however, remains the drills. The chief engineer of the mission, Adam Steltzner, explains that these drills will collect samples of Mars, and use them as a target for their next mission. This way they hope to get the samples back to Earth by 2031- a gateway Steltzner claims could help scientists “unlock the secrets of Mars”. The rover will also be carrying a helicopter named Ingenuity for which this will be its first test flight.
This event breaks two records as it would be the first time mankind has flown an aeronautic machine on another planet as well as bringing back to Earth the only rock sample from Mars. Even though the rover has only completed a fraction of its entire mission, the team at NASA already considers it a massive milestone in humanity’s journey to explore Mars.