While the world will be watching the Perseverance rover alight on Mars Thursday (Feb. 18), let’s not forget the ongoing adventures of another NASA Mars mission bravely carrying on amid dust, cold and technical issues.
On the surface, Mars presents itself as a world on the verge of inhospitality.
Average temperatures that hover around negative 81 degrees. A thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere sometimes rendered opaque by planet-wide dust storms that can even be seen from Earth. The gravity that’s just one-third of what humans have evolved to tolerate.
But the Red Planet’s features tell a different story.
Looking at photos captured by satellites in orbit, it doesn’t take much imagining to see Mars was likely once home to rivers of running water and enormous crater-lakes. With the right conditions, perhaps this planet that gets its rusty color from iron oxide-rich rocks could once have been suitable for life – or at least life as we know it.
This dichotomy has left experts asking one of the most difficult-to-answer questions in science today: What happened to Mars, and can the same thing happen here on Earth?
“We know that Mars had a bad past,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “We used our Spirit and Opportunity rovers (2003) to follow the water in search of answers as to why this once ocean world is now dry and desolate. Following those missions came our Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012 and is still operating.”
Now it’s time for NASA’s next robotic explorer – Perseverance – to follow in the dusty tracks of its predecessors. After a 293 million-mile trek across the expanse since its July 2020 launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, the upgraded rover is slated to land on the Red Planet at 3:55 p.m. Eastern Thursday.
Its target: Jezero Crater, a harsh surface feature that was likely once a deep lake fed by rivers of running water.
“Perseverance is our robotic astrobiologist, and it will be the first rover NASA has sent to Mars with the explicit goal of searching for signs of ancient life,” Zurbuchen said.
But before it can begin roving its targeted landing site at a neck-breaking 0.1 mph, Perseverance has to pull off a series of risky landing manoeuvres all by itself.