Editor’s Note: On February 18, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission reached the red planet and successfully landed the Perseverance rover on the surface. NASA’s Mars 2020 mission reached the red planet. Jim Bell is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and has worked on several missions to Mars. He is the principal investigator leading a team in charge of one of Perseverance’s camera systems. We caught up with him in late January for The Conversation’s new podcast, The Conversation Weekly.
What is the objective of this mission?
What we are looking for is evidence of past life, whether it be direct chemical or organic signs in the composition and chemistry of the rocks, or textural evidence in the rock record. The environment of Mars is extremely harsh compared to Earth, so we are not looking for evidence of current life. Unless something really gets up and walks in front of the cameras, we’re not really going to find that.
Where was the Perseverance landing to search for ancient life?
There was a three or four year process that involved the entire global Mars community and planetary scientific researchers to figure out where to send this rover. We chose a crater called Jezero, which has a beautiful river delta, preserved from an ancient river that flowed into that crater and deposited sediment. This is like the delta at the end of the Mississippi River in Louisiana that is very gently depositing sediment in the Gulf of Mexico.
On Earth, these shallow waters are a very soft environment where organic molecules and fossils can be gently buried and preserved in very fine-grained mud stones. If a Martian delta operates in the same way, then it is a great environment to preserve evidence of things that were flowing in that water that came from the ancient highlands above the crater.
There are many things that we do not know, but there was liquid water there. There were sources of heat – there were active volcanoes 2, 3, 4 billion years ago on Mars – and there are impact craters from asteroids and comets pouring a lot of heat into the ground, as well as organic molecules. It’s a very short list of places in the solar system that meet those limitations, and Jezero is one of those places. It is one of the best places we plan to go to do this quest for life.
What scientific tools does Perseverance carry?
The Perseverance Rover looks a lot like Curiosity on the outside because it’s made from something like 90 percent spare parts for this rover – that’s how NASA could afford this mission. Curiosity has a couple of cameras – a wide angle, a telephoto lens.
At Perseverance, we are shipping similar cameras, but with zoom technology so we can zoom from wide angle to telephoto with both cameras. This allows us to obtain large stereo images. Just like our left eye and our right eye build a three-dimensional image in our brain, the Perserverance zoom cameras are a left eye and a right eye. With this, we can build a three-dimensional image on Earth when we have those images.
3D images allow us to do a wide range of things scientifically. We want to understand the topography of Mars in much more detail than we have been capable of in the past. We want to put together the pieces of the delta geology history not only with two-dimensional spatial information, but with height and texture. And we want to make 3D maps of the landing site.
Our engineering and driving colleagues need that information too. These 3D images will help them decide where to drive by helping to identify obstacles and slopes and trenches and rocks and the like, allowing them to drive the rover much deeper in places than they would have been able to otherwise.
And finally, we’re going to make cool 3D views of our landing site to share with the public, including movies and flyovers.
What else is different about this mission?
Perseverance is intended to be the first part of a robotic sample return mission from Mars. So instead of just drilling into the surface like the Curiosity Rover does, Perseverance will drill into the core on the surface and deposit those little nuclei in tubes the size of a dry-erase marker. It will then bring those tubes to the surface for a future mission later this decade to collect them and then bring them back to Earth.
Perseverance will not be returning to Earth, but the plan is to bring the samples we collect. In the meantime, we’ll do all the science any great scout mission would do. We will characterize the site, explore the geology, and measure atmospheric and meteorological properties.
How are they going to get those samples back to Earth?
This is where it gets a little less confident, because these are all ideas and missions in the works. NASA and the European Space Agency are collaborating on a concept to build and launch a lander that will send a small rover that will fetch the tiny tubes, and then take them back to the lander. Waiting on the lander would be a small rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle, or MAV. Once the samples are loaded into the MAV, it launches them into the orbit of Mars.
These boats, the size of between an orange and a soccer ball, will be found up there and NASA and the Europeans are collaborating on an orbiter that will search for that boat, capture it and then launch it back to Earth, where it will land in the Utah desert. What could go wrong?
If it is successful, it will be the first time we have done it from Mars. The scientific tools of the vehicles are good, but nothing like the laboratories on Earth. Bringing those samples back is going to be absolutely critical to getting the most out of the samples.
In the following link you can find the original publication: https://theconversation.com/bringing-mars-rocks-back-to-earth-on-feb-18-perseverance-rover-landed-safely-on-mars-a- lead-scientist-explains-the-tech-and-goals-153851
Jim Bell is Professor of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.
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NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully reaches the surface of Mars
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