NASA has landed a car-sized rover on the red planet to search for signs of past life.
The vehicle has more instruments than the four rovers preceding it, and it’s also carrying gear that could help pave the way for human exploration of Mars.
The SMC asked experts to comment on the landing.
Dr Duncan Steel, space scientist, comments:
“The successful landing by NASA of its Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars was a triumph of engineering and technology, which we anticipate will lead to major scientific advances. The complicated series of automated manoeuvres that brought it down in speed from 6 kilometres per second to a soft landing on the surface a handful of minutes later were all executed flawlessly.
“The landing sequence needed to be fully automated because Mars is currently more than eleven minutes away from Earth, in terms of radio travel time. This means that the round-trip of any radio instruction takes almost 23 minutes in all.
“After the rover has been subjected to a ‘health check’, it will start its slow exploration of Jezero Crater. With many cameras on-board, we can expect to receive lots of wonderful planetscapes as the region around the landing site is examined.
“Jezero Crater, which is about 45 km across (much the same size as Lake Taupo), was chosen as the target area because it is known to be a ‘dried up’ lake, with sinuous channels already mapped through which water flowed into (and then out of) that lake in the distant past – perhaps 4 billion years ago – when Mars was warmer and had a thicker atmosphere, making it feasible for liquid water to exist on the surface. The sediments laid down over aeons in that lake may contain chemical evidence of life having once thrived on Mars, and scientists using Perseverance will be carefully looking for such evidence.
“Also landed with the rover, and currently stowed under its belly, is a small helicopter, with a mass of less than 2 kg. When deployed, this helicopter – named Ingenuity – will be used to obtain lofted views of the area around Perseverance, of interest in themselves but also to be used in planning the path that the rover will be instructed to take over the coming months.
“NASA’s Curiosity rover is similar to Perseverance, and is still exploring a different part of Mars after eight years wheeling around its surface. These two were the fourth and fifth rovers to be landed on the Red Planet. This May or June, China plans to land its own rover on the Martian surface. The Tianwen-1 spaceprobe arrived at Mars nine days ago, and was inserted into an orbit around that planet. Also recently arrived at Mars is the Hope orbiter, built by the United Arab Emirates and launched by Japan. NASA, the European Space Agency and India all have other satellites currently orbiting Mars, mapping its surface and studying its atmosphere.”
No conflict of interest declared.
Associate Professor James Scott, Department of Geology, University of Otago, comments:
These comments are excerpted from The Conversation.
“NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully touched down on Mars this morning, and has already begun beaming back images.
“But people might be surprised to learn there have been another 48 missions to the red planet so far. Of these, more than half failed at stages from take-off to deployment — including the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter, destroyed on Mars entry after someone failed to convert imperial measurements to metric.
“Successful missions include Mars Insight, which is studying the interior via measurement of “marsquakes”, and the Curiosity rover, which touched down in 2012 and has been examining the geology of Mt Sharp.
“Small planets cool quickly and it has long been suspected that Mars’s core has largely but not totally crystallised. This means Mars has mostly lost the protective magnetic field that deflects cosmic radiation.
“But we are confident Mars once had an ocean, containing water as we know it. The temperature was above freezing and conditions were suitable for life. The stripping away of the magnetic field early in Mars’s history means this ocean is long gone and the average temperature is now -65, but frosts, clouds and ice caps remain.
“Not being fortunate enough to roam the deserts of Africa or the icy plateaus of Antarctica, I instead found my first Martian meteorite sitting in a cabinet in a gem store in the small New Zealand town of Akaroa.
“Using a scanning electron microscope, my examination revealed it was a shergottite, one of the most common Martian meteorites — equivalent to what we know on Earth as basalt.
“The thousands of craters scarring Mars’s surface mean it is ancient. This was confirmed when one meteorite was dated to be 4.4 billion years old. Properties of some other Martian meteorites show Mars formed within 13 million years of the formation of the Solar System. This in turn means some of the first planetary crust that formed on Mars likely still exists at the surface.”
Disclosure statement: James Scott is president of the Geoscience Society of New Zealand.
Our colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre have also gathered comment, some of which is below.
Professor Anna Moore is Director of the ANU Institute for Space:
“This is another spectacular achievement from NASA and its collaborators to understand if life ever flourished on Mars, and through next generation technology, such as flying the first helicopter (!) and producing Oxygen in the CO2 atmosphere, will pave the way for humans to eventually live sustainably on our neighbouring planet.”
Anna has not declared any conflicts of interest.
Professor Phil Bland is Director of the Space Science and Technology Centre at Curtin University:
“With Perseverance we have entered a unique moment in our history. Perseverance is the first mission to carry a science suite that is complete enough to definitively detect past or extant life. From this point on, any given day, we can be woken up with the news that there is compelling evidence for life on another planet.
“Over 1000 industry partners contributed to Perseverance. Just one marker demonstrating how an inspirational mission with a compelling science case, combining pure and applied research with engineering, can generate jobs and growth.”
Phil has not declared any conflicts of interest.