This past summer, NASA’s Perseverance rover launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. On February 18th, 2021, it will arrive on Mars and join in the search for evidence for past (and maybe even present) life. A particularly exciting aspect of this mission is the Mars Sample Return (MSR), a multi-mission effort that will send samples of Mars back to Earth for analysis.
This aspect of the Perseverance mission will be assisted by a lander and orbiter developed by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). According to NASA, the MSR recently advanced to the next stage of development (Phase A). If all goes well, Perseverance will have a companion in the coming years that will take its samples and launch them to orbit, where they will be picked up and sent back to Earth.
We are extremely interested in the possibility of water on Mars, because where there’s water, there’s the potential for life. But a new study throws a bit of a wet blanket (pun intended) on that tantalizing possibility. Unfortunately, it looks like even the saltiest of brines can only exist on the Martian surface for up to a few hours at a time.
Thanks to multiple robotic missions that have explored Mars’ atmosphere, surface, and geology, scientists have concluded that Mars was once a much warmer, wetter place. In addition to having a thicker atmosphere, the planet was actually warm enough that flowing water could exist on the surface in the form of rivers, lakes, and even an ocean that covered much of the northern hemisphere.
According to new research based on data collected by NASA’s Curiosity mission, it appears that the Gale Crater (where the rover has been exploring for the past eight years) experienced massive flooding roughly 4 billion years ago. These findings indicate that the mid-latitudes of Mars were also covered in water at one time and offers additional hints that the region once supported life.
Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a team of scientists has identified a mysterious molecule in Titan’s atmosphere. It’s called cyclopropenylidene (C3H2), a simple carbon-based compound that has never been seen in an atmosphere before. According to the team’s study published in The Astronomical Journal, this molecule could be a precursor to more complex compounds that could indicate possible life on Titan.
On February 6th, 2018, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful launch vehicle in their rocket family, and in service today. Not only was this a major milestone for SpaceX, it was also the biggest public relations coup ever orchestrated by Musk. For this launch, Musk decided that the payload would be his cherry Tesla Roadster with a SpaceX spacesuit (affectionately named “Starman”) at the wheel.
Those who watched the live footage of the event (or caught the compilation video released shortly after) are not likely to forget Starman and the Roadster orbiting Earth as David Bowie played in the background. At the time, it was also anticipated that Starman and the Roadster would eventually make a close pass of Mars. Two years after launch, Starman finally accomplished a flyby of the Red Planet!
Evidence of Mars’ watery past is written all over the surface of the planet. Between dried-up river valleys, outflow channels, and sedimentary deposits, it is clear that Mars was once a much different place. But until recently, the mystery of where this water went has remained unsolved. This changed in 2018 when data obtained by the ESA’s Mars Expressprobe indicated the existence of water beneath the south pole of the planet.
According to the Mars Express probe’s Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS), this body of water is in a 20 km (~12.5 mi) wide area about 1.5 km (~1 mi) beneath the surface. And now, further analysis of the data by a team led by the Roma Tre University has revealed the existence of three new ponds, the largest of which measures about 20 x 30 km (~12.5 x 18.5 mi) and is surrounded by many smaller ponds.
I remember the Summer of 1997 when a shoebox-sized Mars rover literally broke the Internet.
Sojourner – the first rover we sent to another planet – had just landed on Mars in a giant space airbag bouncing along the surface to a safe stop. The Internet was new. And I was a young space enthusiast with a dial-up modem. For the first time, images from a space exploration mission were beamed to an audience that was connected online. Now we use the term “broke the Internet” as a hyperbolic phrase for various Internet phenomena, but interest in the Mars mission in 97 drove so many hits to NASA mirror servers around the world that global web traffic was disrupted. Patiently I watched as, line by line, orange sky to red stone, the first image posted by NASA loaded on my screen…it took about an hour. Each line resolved was like my own exploration of the planet. And finally, the landing site, in “real time”, was revealed to me and the entire world all at once. What would we discover together?
In a minor hiccup, the Mars 2020 spacecraft entered safe mode a few hours after launch, apparently due to a temperature anomaly. This was the conclusion reached by mission controllers after receiving telemetry data on the spacecraft via the NASA Deep Space Network. Luckily, the spacecraft is working nominally and is on its way toward Mars to join in the search for evidence of past (and present) life!
Remember back in 2008 when the Phoenix lander on Mars scraped away a few inches of rust-colored regolith to reveal water ice? Or in 2009, when Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observations revealed vast areas of subsurface ice, event at low latitudes?
These findings – and many more like them – indicate there’s a lot of interesting things going on underneath Mars’ lifeless surface. Since we know from experience on Earth that anywhere there is water, there is life, the question of life on – or under – Mars’s surface is always provocative.
This summer – between July 30th and August 15th – NASA’s Perseverancerover will begin its long journey for Mars. Once it arrives (by February of 2021), it will join its sister mission, the Curiosity rover, and a slew of other robotic landers and orbiters that are busy characterizing the atmosphere and surface of the Red Planet. Ultimately, the goal of Perseverance is to determine if Mars once supported life (and maybe still does!)
Just last week (July 7th), the Perseverance rover and all the other elements of the Mars 2020 spacecraft were loaded aboard the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas Vrocket that will send it on its way. This included the aeroshell, cruise stage, and descent stage, which will be responsible for transporting the Perseverance rover during its six-month journey to Mars and depositing it on the surface.