Events on Earth got you down? Perhaps, then, it’s time to turn our attention upward and off of this planet. Great news is coming to us from the Red Planet. Due to the perseverance of scientists, a rover named Perseverance, or Percy for short, safely landed on Mars on February 18, 2021. Its mission is fueled by scientific accomplishments and offers exciting opportunities to learn more about the fourth planet from our sun.
Let’s start off by reviewing what is known about Mars. The planet is named after Mars, the Roman god of war. Inhabitants of the planet, if any exist, would be called Martians. The 1960’s science fiction sitcom “My Favorite Martian” was based on the popular notion that intelligent life existed there. But to date, no Martians have been located on the planet, and none have appeared here on Earth. Well, that’s at least as far as the government has revealed to us to date. I mean someone has to be flying all those UFO’s we hear about in the tabloids.
But the environment on the Red Planet is not really conducive to life like we Earthlings know it. Mars is a dusty, cold, rocky desert world with a very thin atmosphere. The planet boasts the largest dust storms in the solar system; gigantic storms covering the entire planet occur. During the Martian nights (which are not likely to be anything like the Arabian Nights), temperatures can dip pretty low. How does -130 degrees sound to you?
Mars has some intriguing features. The soil appears a reddish color due to iron minerals in it. These minerals rust (or oxidize for you scientific types) causing the atmosphere and the ground to look red. Mars also has seasons, canyons, extinct volcanoes, and polar ice caps. Volcanoes are believed to have been active on the planet 2 – 4 billion years ago. That’s billion with a “b,” and waaaay before the time of anyone reading this post.
Man-made pieces of equipment known as a rovers are utilized to explore our neighboring planet. In fact, Mars is the only planet to which rovers have been sent, and Percy is the largest of those rovers. Preceding Perseverance’s current mission was Rover Curiosity which dropped in (literally) on the Red Planet back in August 2012. Curiosity and Perseverance missed active volcanoes erupting at their destination by a few billion years. Whew!
Thanks to Curiosity, the Perseverance mission was affordable for NASA–affordable, of course, being a relative term when billions of dollars are involved. Approximately 90% of Perseverance is made up of spare parts from Curiosity.
Percy is car-sized (10′ long by 9′ wide by 7′ tall) and weighs less than a compact car at 2,200 pounds. Unlike a car, however, the rover has six wheels, 19 cameras, and a rock-vaporizing laser. Since no gas stations exist on Mars, Percy runs on nuclear power; solar panels were not viable due to the huge dust storms which occur on the Red Planet.
This man-made rover is putting to rest stereotypes about scientists being socially inept nerds. (Can you say “The Big Bang Theory?”) Percy has its own Twitter account, @NASAPersevere, from which it tweeted “I’m safe on Mars,” after landing. It is an active piece of equipment which boasts hobbies such as collecting rocks, photography, and off-roading on the NASA website. Sounds like Percy was just made for this mission, right?
Getting to Mars from Earth was quite a jaunt for Percy. Liftoff occurred in July 2020 from a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. 293 million miles and 203 days (around 7 months) later, Percy arrived at the intended destination, the Jezero Crater.
News of the rover’s landing on the Martian surface was greeted with glee by scientists back on Earth who had to endure an 11 minute transmission delay to learn they could scream “Touch down!” (No word as to whether Percy was outfitted with a football.) The landing was a dangerous part of the journey as the spacecraft had to decelerate from thousands of miles per hour down to 17 for the landing to occur.
Since landing, the rover has sent back the first color pictures from the surface of Mars. Included among the pictures transmitted was a selfie. Apparently Percy has a bit of an ego along with scientific capabilities.
So what exactly is Percy’s mission? Its primary mission, which will last for two Earth years or one Martian year, is to look for evidence of past life on Mars. Due to the extremely harsh environment on the planet, it is not believed life currently exists there. Evidence of past life may be found in the composition and chemistry of rocks on the Martian surface or the rock record presented. The latter, of course, has nothing to do with music.
Although dusty and dry today, the crater where the rover landed is thought to have once held a massive lake fed by running streams of water. Deposits of sediment in the ancient river delta found a hospitable environment for organic molecules and fossils to be buried and preserved. During its mission, Percy will collect and store sets of soil and rock samples that could be returned to Earth on a future mission. Why doesn’t Percy just bring them home itself? Well, Percy won’t be coming back to Earth. Thus, NASA will need to send another Red Planet rover right over to collect the stored samples.
Although collecting rocks seems enthralling (not!), a more charismatic part of Percy’s mission is to carry out the first ever flight on another planet. Percy itself won’t be going flying, but a four pound mini-helicopter hitched to the rover’s belly, will. Ingenious, huh? Well, that’s why the tiny whirly bird was dubbed “Ingenuity.”
Perseverance’s mission, whether or not it finds evidence of past life on the Red Planet, is already a success. It establishes that human initiative can accomplish amazing things. With that backdrop, perhaps we should turn human initiative back to Earth and accomplish amazing things on our own planet such as kicking COVID’s butt and learning to get along with our fellow man. If unfriendly Martians should appear, wouldn’t we have to band together to fight the aliens? Let’s practice working together for good before that occurs.
Are the billions of dollars expended to undertake this mission to Mars justified? Do you think evidence of past life on Mars will be found? Would you watch a video of the mini-helicopter flying over the Martian surface if NASA posts it?