Rock and soil taken from Mars by NASA’s Perseverance rover in the search for ancient microbial Martian life will be selected by UK researchers.
Scientists at Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum will help Perseverance select the Martian samples, which will eventually be brought back to Earth for scientific study.
Perseverance blasts off from Florida at 7:50am EDT (12.50pm BST) this Thursday (July 30) and is due to touch down on the Martian surface in February 2021.
Following its seven-month journey, Perseverance will land on the Red Planet’s 28-mile (45km) Jezero crater, which contains sediments of an ancient river delta.
The location could provide preserved evidence of past microbial life, had it ever existed on the harsh freezing cold conditions of our rusty red neighbour.
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Perseverance will carry instruments geared to search for the carbon building blocks of life and other microbes and to reconstruct the geological history of the Red Planet
Professor Sanjeev Gupta, a geologist at Imperial College London, will be studying the ancient delta and lake sediments exposed in Jezero crater to reconstruct its evolution.
‘This is crucial to understand what the Martian climate was like early in Mars’ history and whether it was habitable for life,’ he said.
‘This information will be used to help us define the best spots to collect rock samples for future return to Earth.
PERSEVERANCE AND ITS PREDECESSORS
Launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Perseverance will take seven months to get to Mars.
It will land in February 2021 in Jezero crater – the floor of an ancient lake.
It will be in operation for 687 days.
NASA’s modest first rover – Sojourner – demonstrated in 1997 that a robot could rove on the Red Planet.
Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004, found evidence that the planet once hosted running water before becoming a frozen desert.
Curiosity, which has been exploring Mars since 2012, discovered that its landing site, Gale Crater, was home to a lake billions of years ago, with an environment that could have supported microbial life.
‘Laboratory analyses of such samples on Earth will enable us search for morphological and chemical signatures of ancient life on Mars and also answer key questions about Mars’ geological evolution.’
Natural History Museum personnel will be studying the mineralogy and geochemistry of the different rocks found in the crater and the potential for indicators of ancient microbial life.
‘Mars probably presents our best chance of finding life elsewhere in the Solar System, and the fact that Mars 2020 plans to prepare samples for eventual return to Earth gives us a unique opportunity to discover traces of that life,’ said Dr Keyron Hickman-Lewis, who is preparing to join the museum.
Perseverance is carrying seven instruments that will analyse samples from the surface, including an advanced panoramic camera, a ground-penetrating radar and an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer for analysis of chemical elements.
Selected samples will be collected by drilling down to nearly three inches (7cm) and then sealed in special sample tubes and stored on the rover.
The rover also carries the robotic Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, that will be used to scout interesting targets on Mars.
Ingenuity – which represents the first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another planet – will fly short distances from the main body of the rover.
Jezero crater, the 28-mile (45km) wide destination of Perseverance, contains sediments of an ancient river delta, a location where evidence of past life could be preserved if it ever existed on the planet
Perseverance will also be trialling technologies to help astronauts make future expeditions to, and eventually live and work on, Mars.
These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying resources such as water beneath the surface, improving landing techniques and characterising weather and other environmental conditions.
However, Perseverance is not bringing the samples back to Earth – when the rover reaches a suitable location, the tubes will dropped on the surface of Mars to be collected by a future retrieval mission, which is currently being developed.
Currently, NASA and ESA plan to launch two more spacecraft that would leave Earth in 2026 and reach Mars in 2028.
The first will deploy a small rover, which will make its way to Perseverance, pick up the filled sampling tubes and transfer them to a ‘Mars ascent vehicle’ – a small rocket.
This rocket will blast off – in the process becoming the first object launched from the surface of Mars – and place the container into Martian orbit, meaning it will essentially be floating in space.
The multi-billion dollar project to bring back a piece of Mars to Earth will involve three separate launches and would only be successful as soon as 2031. The mission will start when Perseverance, NASA’s new exploration rover, launches this summer
At this point, the third and final spacecraft involved in the tricky operation will manoeuvre itself next to the sample container, pick it up and fly it back to Earth.
Providing its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere is successful, it will plummet to the ground at a military training ground in Utah in 2031, meaning the Martian samples won’t be studied for another 10 years.
However, NASA’s immediate concerns are a successful launch of Perseverance this week, weather permitting.
Perseverance is set to be launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Thursday, and follows a couple of rival Mars missions in the space of just 10 days.
On July 20, the UAE launched its Hope orbiter from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center and three days later on July 23, China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft blasted off from Wenchang in Hainan, China on July 23.
The countries are taking advantage of a period when Earth and Mars are favourably aligned for a short journey.
As for the UK’s Mars efforts, in two years’ time, the UK-built Rosalind Franklin rover should blast into space some time between August and October 2022 from southern Kazakhstan.
Built by Airbus Defence and Space, at the company’s UK facility in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, the rover will be able to drill 6.5 feet (2 metres) below the surface, gathering samples from regions not affected by radiation.
Previously known as ExoMars, the rover has been named after Rosalind Franklin, a UK scientist and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.
The rover is the first to honour a woman scientist on its flagship discovery craft.
THREE MISSIONS TO MARS IN THE SPACE OF 10 DAYS
There are three major missions bound for Mars in the space of just 10 days this month – the UAE’s Hope orbiter, China’s Tianwen-1 craft and NASA’s Perseverance rover.
The countries are taking advantage of a period when Earth and Mars are favourably aligned for a relatively short journey.
July 20: Hope (UAE)
The 3,000lb (1,350kg) craft (pictured) will complete one orbit every 55 hours for a total of one Martian year — 687 Earth days
– The 2,970-pound probe was built entirely within the Emirates, launched from Japan and will take seven months to reach the Red Planet.
– When the orbiter gets there in February 2021, it will stay in orbit for a whole Martian year – 687 days.
– Hope will not land on the Martian surface but take readings from the Red Planet’s atmosphere.
– Hope will help answer key questions about the Martian atmosphere and the loss of hydrogen and oxygen gases into space over the span of one Martian year – called a ‘sol’.
– Three instruments mounted on the probe will provide a picture of Mars’s atmosphere throughout the year, and all of the data gathered will be made widely available.
– This includes an infrared spectrometer to measure the lower atmosphere and temperature, a high-resolution imager to study the ozone and another to look at levels of hydrogen and oxygen up to 27,000 miles from the surface.
July 23: Tianwen-1
The Chinese space exploration authority introduced the nation’s first Mars rover Tianwen-1 (pictured) at a grand ceremony earlier this month. The rover measures just over six feet in height
– This robotic spacecraft consists of an orbiter (stationed in the atmosphere), a lander (stationary on the planet’s surface) and a rover (roaming the surface).
– The craft measures just over six feet in height (1.85m) and weighs 530 pounds (240kg).
– It will survey the composition, types of substance, geological structure and meteorological environment of the Martian surface.
– The solar-powered machine is designed to work on Mars for three Martian months, about 92 Earth days.
– It includes a geological camera, a multispectral camera, a subsurface detection radar, a surface composition detector, a surface magnetic field detector and a weather detector.
– A poem pondering on the stars and planets written over 2000 years ago was the inspiration for the name of China’s first exploration mission to Mars.
– Called Tianwen (天问), the poem was written by ancient Chinese literati and politician Qu Yuan (339-278BC), who lived in the Chu State (770-223BC).
July 30: Perseverance
NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover will pick up samples of rock and soil from the red planet, deposit them in tubes and leave them on the ground for a future mission to return them to Earth.
– NASA’s Perseverance rover is the heaviest payload yet to go to the Red Planet – at a car-sized 2,259 pounds (1,025kg).
The mission will seek signs of past microbial life on Mars and collect rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth.
– The Mars Perseverance rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a ‘cache’ on the surface of Mars.
– The rover will travel using an ultraviolet laser to determine what minerals and compounds are present in the soil, based on the way the light scatters.
– The Mars 2020 rover, which was built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California., is now at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final preparations.
– It launches to space on July 30 and is set to touch down on Mars in 12 months.
– It has a mission duration of 1 Mars year (668 sols or 687 Earth days) and will touch down on the planet’s Jezero crater on Mars in February 2021.