Chasing Life on Mars | Discover Magazine

Nancy J. Delong

This story was at first printed in our January/February 2022 difficulty. Simply click right here to subscribe to browse additional stories like this a single.


Human beings have puzzled if there is ever been everyday living on Mars for as prolonged as we have regarded it’s a earth. We could soon have an solution. In February, NASA landed its Mars Perseverance rover, along with a companion helicopter, the intrepid Ingenuity, in an ancient river delta identified as Jezero Crater. The NASA mission, dubbed Mars2020, was intended to look for for indications of ancient everyday living and acquire drilling samples to return to Earth for deeper examination.

“For the to start with time, we are really heading to provide again cores from Mars to Earth,” claims Vandi Verma, chief engineer of robotic operations for the mission. Together the way, Perseverance will also lay the groundwork for long term human missions by finding out environmental conditions, determining assets like water and testing a method for generating oxygen.

Perseverance was not the only spacecraft to make the trip in 2021, possibly. Not prolonged right after Perseverance landed, a Chinese rover named Zhurong also touched down on Mars. Like NASA’s rover, it was intended to come across proof of ancient everyday living and get ready for long term sample retrieval. A United Arab Emirates orbiting spacecraft identified as Hope also arrived to make comparable research, as Earth’s room agencies took edge of a comparatively shut Crimson Earth tactic.

Perseverance builds on the legacy of its six-wheeled predecessors, which have demonstrated that Mars was once a soaked and habitable earth. Now, astronomers hope to come across out regardless of whether it was ever really inhabited. The new rover’s tantalizing landing web site and state-of-the-art devices offer the best hope nevertheless for a conclusive solution.

The story of the landing web site, Jezero Crater, commences roughly four billion several years ago, when Mars was considerably hotter and wetter, and everyday living was just taking hold on Earth. An great room rock struck just north of the equator and fashioned an impact basin some 750 miles vast. Sooner or later, a lesser asteroid smashed an additional hole in the region, churning up a unique mix of rocks and sediments.

Possibility and Reward 

Rivers in the region soon flowed into Jezero Crater, offering abundant sediment and making a lake additional than a quarter-mile deep and two times the width of Lake Tahoe. The wetland might have been an great spot for everyday living to evolve on Mars, which is why NASA chose Jezero Crater to look for for indications of everyday living. But that very same geological record also carried risk to the mission.

“From an engineering standpoint, Jezero Crater was the most dangerous landing web site of the five or six candidates that they picked,” claims JPL engineer Andrew Johnson, who aided oversee the landing. “There’s all these heinous boulders.”

Which is why NASA designed substantial engineering improvements to Mars2020’s navigation programs. Freshly intended programs permit the spacecraft see the surface for the duration of descent, compute its correct situation and program-right toward a tightly constrained landing web site. Elsewhere, updates to the rover’s autonomous driving program also permit the robot vacation faster than ever prior to. On a every day basis, Perseverance will go over about as considerably floor as the Mars rover solitary-day history, about two football fields.

“We can land in terrain that would have been regarded as well dangerous on previous missions,” claims Verma, who also drives Perseverance. “Now we can get to the scientifically attention-grabbing terrain considerably additional swiftly.”

Curiosity’s Legacy 

The new rover arrived amid ample intrigue more than regardless of whether everyday living exists on Mars right now, not just in the ancient past. NASA’s Curiosity rover found out obvious indications of methane gasoline for the duration of its prolonged, slow travel up 3.four-mile-tall Mount Sharp. Microbes generate considerably of Earth’s methane, but geologic processes can make it, as well. By 2018, Curiosity experienced consistently found methane stages rise in martian summer time, then drop off in winter season. Nonetheless, thanks to limits in technologies utilized to detect methane, scientists nevertheless discussion its incredibly existence on Mars.

The Curiosity rover is nevertheless lively, and it proceeds to enjoy for methane. Having said that, Perseverance is taking a additional immediate tactic to the look for for microbial motion. 

The rover’s everyday living-looking capabilities arrive thanks to a robotic arm intended specially to study rock surfaces, and an additional instrument that offers NASA an up-shut look at rock textures. These devices — dubbed SHERLOC and WATSON — are mapping minerals and organic and natural molecules on rocks that Perseverance finds along its journey. Any attention-grabbing samples get a additional in-depth examination utilizing the suite of devices in the rover’s cellular lab. For example, a group of organic and natural molecules clumped together in a rock could hint that everyday living once existed there. Other attention-grabbing indicators of the previous atmosphere, like hints of ancient salt water, could also pique scientists’ interests.

To start with Sample 

Perseverance also does not require to straight discover proof of everyday living. The robot is collecting surface samples all across Jezero Crater, which will at some point be examined with additional subtle resources again on Earth, exactly where specific relationship is doable. Place agencies have sampled comets, asteroids and the moon, but no mission has ever gathered surface samples from an additional earth.

Having said that, depending on its timing, NASA won’t necessarily be the to start with to accomplish the feat. China has comparable aims with its Tianwen-1 spacecraft and Zhurong rover, the to start with non-NASA lander to properly operate on Mars. The rover landed in Mars’ premier impact basin, Utopia Planitia, which retains a subsurface lake much larger than New Mexico. China’s room company is hunting the region for indications of everyday living.

Engineers from NASA and the European Place Agency are by now creating their “fetch” rover to velocity across Jezero Crater collecting Perseverance’s samples, as well as a spacecraft to launch them into orbit. They should attain Mars in the late 2020s.

“We’ll be finding out these samples for many years to arrive, like how we nevertheless conduct research on samples we got again from the moon,” Verma claims. “Scientists who haven’t been born nevertheless … will be finding out these samples utilizing technologies that haven’t been invented nevertheless.”

NASA also despatched Perseverance with a robotic stowaway. Tucked beneath the rover was a little, photo voltaic-powered helicopter identified as Ingenuity. And as the rover received its footing, mission engineers took their new drone for a collection of take a look at flights, supplying humanity its to start with Wright brothers minute in the thin Martian air.

Dynamic Duo Exceeds Anticipations

The helicopter was drawn up as a reduced-price tag technologies demonstrator whose primary mission was just a few flights. Rather, Ingenuity drastically outperformed anticipations. And when the rover set out to investigate the river delta, its new drone sidekick left with it. 

The scouting flights — each and every spanning mere minutes — swiftly proved valuable, especially in terms of assessing terrain to velocity the rover’s program and including new views for scientists to make sense of on-the-floor discoveries.

Now that Ingenuity has demonstrated by itself able, mission engineers suspect the drone could develop into a prolonged-term vacation lover for Perseverance.

“I really don’t guess from our robots,” Verma claims. “I would appreciate to see the helicopter arrive with us all the way to the Jezero delta, but we take it a single day at a time.”

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