Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity…For decades, NASA’s robotic rovers have explored the surface of Mars looking for clues about its past and subsequent evolution. With every success and discovery, their names became part of the public discourse, infiltrating our vocabulary the same way iconic figures like Armstrong, Einstein, and Hubble did. But what of the next rover that will be sent to explore Mars this summer?
NASA has serious plans for the Mars 2020 rover, the next installment in the Mars Exploration Program after its sister-rover Curiosity. But before this mission can launch and add its impressive capabilities to the hunt for life on Mars (past and present), it needed a proper name. Thanks to Alexander Mather (a grade 7 student from Burke, Virginia), it now has one. From this day forward, the Mars 2020 rover will be known as the Perseverance rover!
Next year, the European Space Agency (ESA) will be sending the ExoMars 2020 mission to the Red Planet. This mission consists of an ESA-built rover (Rosalind Franklin) and a Russian-led surface science platform (Kazachok) that will study the Martian environment in order to characterize its surface, atmosphere, and determine whether or not life could have once existed on the planet.
In preparation for this mission, engineers are putting the rover and lander through their paces. This includes the ongoing development of the mission’s parachute system, which is currently in troubleshooting after a failed deployment test earlier this month. These efforts are taking place at the Swedish Space Corporation testing site in Esrange, and involve the largest parachute ever used by a mission to Mars.
For centuries, scientists have speculated about the existence of life on Mars. But it was only within the past 15 years that the search for life (past and present) really began to heat up. It was at this time that methane, an organic molecule that is associated with many forms of life here on Earth (i.e. a “biosignature”) was detected in Mars’ atmosphere.
Since that time, attempts to study Mars’ atmospheric methane have produced varying results. In some cases, methane has been found that was several times its normal concentrations; in others, it was absent. Seeking to answer this mystery, an interdisciplinary team from Aarhus Universityrecently conducted a study where they investigated a possible mechanism for the removal of methane from Mars’ atmosphere.
A little over a year from now, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will launch for Cape Canaveral and begin its journey to the Red Planet. When it arrives, in February 2021, it will begin exploring the Jezero Crater to learn more about Mars’ past and search for evidence of past and present life. But before that happens, this robotic explorer still needs a proper name.
Like its predecessors, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity, the Mars 2020 rover will get its official name with the help of a nationwide contest. Towards this end, NASA recently announced that it has partnered with two organizations to give K-12 students all across the US a chance to name the rover that will continue in the search for life and pave the way for humans to begin exploring Mars.
Since it landed on Mars in 2012, one of the main scientific objectives of the Curiosity rover has been finding evidence of past (or even present) life on the Red Planet. In 2014, the rover may have accomplished this very thing when it detected a tenfold increase in atmospheric methane in its vicinity and found traces of complex organic molecules in drill samples while poking around in the Gale Crater.
About a year ago, Curiosity struck pay dirt again when it found organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks located near the surface of lower Mount Sharp. But last week, the Curiosity rover made an even more profound discovery when it detected the largest amount of methane ever measured on the surface of Mars – about 21 parts per billion units by volume (ppbv).
According to a new NASA-funded study that appeared in Astrobiology, the next missions to Mars should be on the lookout for rocks that look like “fettuccine”. The reason for this, according to the research team, is that the formation of these types of rocks is controlled by a form of ancient and hardy bacteria here on Earth that are able to thrive in conditions similar to what Mars experiences today.
In the summer of 2020, NASA’s Mars 2020rover will launch from Cape Canaveral and commence its journey towards the Red Planet. Once it arrives on the Martian surface, the rover will begin building on the foundation established by the Opportunity and Curiosityrovers. This will include collecting samples of Martian soil to learn more about the planet’s past and determine if life ever existed there (and still does).
Up until now, though, NASA has been uncertain as to where the rover will be landing. For the past few years, the choice has been narrowed down to three approved sites, with a fourth added earlier this year for good measure. And after three days of intense debate at the recent fourth Landing Site Workshop, scientists from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program held a non-binding vote that has brought them closer to selecting a landing site.
The possibility that life could exist on Mars has captured the imagination of researchers, scientists and writers for over a century. Ever since Giovanni Schiaparelli (and later, Percival Lowell) spotted what they believed were “Martian Canals” in the 19th century, humans have dreamed of one day sending emissaries to the Red Planet in the hopes of finding a civilization and meeting the native Martians.
While the Mariner and Viking programs of the 1960s and 70s shattered the notion of a Martian civilization, multiple lines of evidence have since emerged that indicate how life could have once existed on Mars. Thanks to a new study, which indicates that Mars may have enough oxygen gas locked away beneath its surface to support aerobic organisms, the theory that life could still exist there has been given another boost.
For some time, scientists have known that Mars was once a much warmer and wetter environment than it is today. However, between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, its atmosphere was slowly stripped away, which turned the surface into the cold and desiccated place we know today. Even after multiple missions have confirmed the presence of ancient lake beds and rivers, there are still unanswered questions about how much water Mars once had.
One of the most important unanswered questions is whether or not large seas or an ocean ever existed in the northern lowlands. According to a new study by an international team of scientists, the Hypanis Valles ancient river system is actually the remains of a river delta. The presence of this geological feature is an indication that this river system once emptied into an ancient Martian sea in Mars’ northern hemisphere.
For generations, many have dreamed about the day when it would be possible to set foot on Mars – aka. “Earth’s Twin” planet. And in the past few years, multiple orbiters, landers and rovers have revealed evidence of past water on Mars, not to mention the possibility that water still exists underground. These findings have fueled the desire to send crewed missions to Mars, not to mention proposals to establish a colony there.
However, this enthusiasm may seem a little misguided when you consider all the challenges the Martian environment presents. In addition to it being very cold and subject to a lot of radiation, the surface of Mars today is also extremely dry. According to a new study led by researchers from NASA’s Ames Research Center, Martian soil is roughly 1000 times drier than some of the driest regions on Earth.
For the sake of their study, the research team sought to determine if microorganisms can survive under the types of conditions present on Mars. To answer this question, the team traveled to the the Atacama Desert in Chile, a 1000 km (620 mi) strip of land on South America’s west coast. With an average rainfall of just 1 to 3 mm (0.04 to 0.12 in) a year, the Atacama desert is known as the driest nonpolar place in the world.
However, the Atacama desert is not uniformly dry, and experiences different levels of precipitation depending on the latitude. From the southern end to the northern end, annual precipitation shifts from a few millimeters of rain per year to only a few millimeters of rain per decade. This environment provides an opportunity to search for life at decreasing levels of precipitation, thus allowing researchers to place constraints on microorganism survivability.
It is at the northern end of the desert (in what is known as the Antofagasta region) where conditions become most Mars-like. Here, the average annual rainfall is just 1 mm a year, which has made it a popular destination for scientists looking to simulate a Martian environment. In addition to seeing if microbes could survive in these dry conditions, the team also sought to determine if they were capable of growth and reproduction.
As Mary Beth Wilhelm – an astrobiologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, NASA’s Ames Research Center, and lead author of the new study – explained in a recent NASA press release:
“On Earth, we find evidence of microbial life everywhere. However, in extreme environments, it’s important to know whether a microbe is dormant and just barely surviving, or really alive and well… By learning if and how microbes stay alive in extremely dry regions on Earth, we hope to better understand if Mars once had microbial life and whether it could have survived until today.”
After collecting soil samples from across the Atacama Desert and brought them back to their lab at Ames, the research team began performing tests to see if their microorganism samples showed any indication of stress markers. These are a key way in which life can be shown to be growing, since organisms in a dormant state (i.e. that are just surviving) show no signs of stress markers.
Specifically, they looked for changes in the lipid structure of the cells outer membranes, which typically become more rigid in response to stress. What they found was that in the less dry parts of the Atacama Desert, this stress marker was present; but strangely, these same markers were missing in the driest regions of the desert where microbes would be more stressed.
Based on these and other results, the team concluded that there is a transition line for microorganisms in environments like the Atacama Desert. On one side of this line, the presence of minute amounts of water is enough for organisms to still be able to grow. On the other side, the environment is so dry that organisms can survive but will not grow and reproduce.
The team was also able to find evidence of microbes that had been dead in the Atacama soil samples for at least 10,000 years. They were able to determine this by examining the amino acids of the microbes, which are the building blocks of proteins, and examining the rate at which their structure changed. This find was rather surprising, seeing as how it is extremely rare that the remnant of ancient life be found on the surface of Earth.
Given that Mars is 1,000 times drier than even the driest parts of Atacama, these results were not encouraging news for those hoping that microbial life will still be found there. However, the fact that the remnants of past microbial life were found in the driest areas of Chile’s desert – which would have existed when conditions were wetter and were well-preserved – is very good news when it comes to the search for past life on Mars.
Essentially, if microbial life did exist on Mars back when it was a warmer, wetter environment, traces of that ancient life might still exist. As Wilhelm explained:
“Before we go to Mars, we can use the Atacama like a natural laboratory and, based on our results, adjust our expectations for what we might find when we get there. Knowing the surface of Mars today might be too dry for life to grow, but that traces of microbes can last for thousands of years helps us design better instruments to not only search for life on and under the planet’s surface, but to try and unlock the secrets of its distant past.”
In the future, missions like NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will be seeking to procure samples of Martian soil. If NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars” takes place by the 2030s as planned, these samples could then be returned to Earth for analysis. With luck, these soil samples will reveal evidence of past life and prove that Mars was once a habitable planet!