Nasa Mars landing: Why today’s Perseverance landing is so important

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 18 February 2021 20:33
NASA Rover Perseverance to Land on Mars
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Nasa is preparing for a treachorous drop onto Mars that will bring to an end a journey of hundreds of millions of miles from Earth to the red planet.Add article

But a successful arrival will also be an important beginning, of research that could finally answer one of the most fundamental questions humanity has ever asked.

Once the rover is lowered onto the surface, it could finally tell us: are we alone?

:: Follow live: Nasa’s rover Perseverance arrives at Mars

The location of that landing is the beginning of that mission. It will drop onto a 5-by-4-mile strip that was a river delta on ancient Mars. The location is full of pits, cliffs and stretches of rock – but was once something like the banks or beaches we have here on Earth.

As such, if life ever called Mars its home – probably some three or four billion years ago, when water still flowed on the planet – it will have been somewhere like the Jezero Crater that Perseverance is dropping onto.

To hunt for it, the rover will drill down into the surface and pick up rock samples that might include evidence of that life. It will examine those samples with the aim of understanding how that ancient Mars might have looked – if it could have been home to extraterrestrial life, or even if evidence of that is contained in the samples themselves.

Read more: Five things Nasa’s Mars rover is taking to the Red Planet today

As such, the rover known as Percy might be the first ever thing to examine the alien life that will finally answer one of the oldest questions ever posed, Nasa notes.

“Are we alone in this sort of vast cosmic desert, just flying through space, or is life much more common? Does it just emerge whenever and wherever the conditions are ripe?” said deputy project scientist Ken Williford.

“Big, basic questions, and we don’t know the answers yet. So we’re really on the verge of being able to potentially answer these enormous questions.”

But such a big question will require similarly grand amounts of work, and fittingly convincing evidence. Perseverance is by its nature small and incomplete – so that evidence would have to be assembled back here on Earth.

If pieces of Mars are able to be brought back, then they can be examined in much larger laboratories, using much more complex equipment, and by many people from across the world.

To do that, Nasa hopes to do that with the first ever sample return mission from Mars – Perseverance will package up some of the samples it takes from the planet, and get them ready to be picked up by another spacecraft that will come later on, in collaboration with the European Space Agency.

“The Mars sample return project is probably the most challenging thing we’ve ever attempted within NASA,” said planetary science director Lori Glaze, “and we don’t do any of these things alone.”

The hunt for alien life and collecting those samples are not the only work that Perseverance will be undertaking. It will be looking at the geology of Mars, and preparing for another kind of life entirely.

Perseverance will also be preparing for humans, by teting out technologies that will be relied on when people head to the planet too. They will include technologies for harnessing the resources on the planet to produce fuel nad oxygen, examine the atmosphere to understand how it might affect human health, and better understand the atmosphere for future spacecraft and the people who might arrive in them.

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