Learn about the recent landing of the Perseverance rover, the history of Mars missions, and why it's important to humanity now and possibly in the future.
On February 18, nearly seven months after launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed safely on the surface of Mars. The largest and most sophisticated robot ever launched into space had successfully reached its destination.
The Perseverance landing is a remarkable feat given what’s come before. Despite thousands of calculations, data points, and predictive models, space has a way of throwing in the unexpected. Historically, only around fifty percent of surface missions have touched down as planned on the Red Planet. Success can never be taken for granted.
This particular mission faced additional complications. Assembly, testing, and mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory were all disrupted due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
So far, Perseverance has lived up to the name. After making it through the Entry, Descent, and Landing phase - dubbed by NASA as “7 minutes of terror” - the rover is now preparing to explore Mars’ Jezero crater.
Chris Mattmann, Information Technology Chief Technology Officer for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and member of our Advisory Board told us, “We’re extremely proud that Perseverance not only successfully landed, but has been performing stupendously in terms of instrument check outs and producing images that are captivating the world.”
The coming days and weeks will see NASA conduct tests of Perseverance’s many onboard systems and instruments before the real work begins.
Back in 2012, NASA dispatched a similar rover - Curiosity - in an effort to discover whether Mars could sustain life. The purpose of the Mars 2020 mission is for Perseverance to take the next step and search for biosignatures of ancient life on the Red Planet.
One of the best places to do that is in the Jezero crater, the site of an ancient lake and river delta. On top of gathering samples that will be collected by future missions and returned to Earth for analysis, the rover’s SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals), and PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) instruments will actively detect organic matter and map the chemical composition of rocks and sediments.
Perseverance has also taken a couple of experimental technologies to the Red Planet. One of these is Ingenuity, a helicopter that’s been designed to operate autonomously in the thin Martian atmosphere. The other is MOXIE, a proof of concept instrument designed to produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere. The technology will be pivotal if humans ever want to set foot on the planet for a prolonged period.
The images beamed back by Perseverance have raised interest in Mars across the globe. But in truth, we’ve been fascinated by the Red Planet for decades.
In the 1960s, the US and the USSR raced to launch several flyby missions in an attempt to get a closer look at Mars. All of them failed, until NASA's Mariner 4 made it to the Red Planet on July 14, 1965, and sent 21 grainy photos home.
The next significant step was taken in 1976, when Viking 1 touched down and captured the first ground photos of Mars.
Twenty years later, NASA’s Pathfinder lander and Sojourner rover arrived in the summer of 1997. The lander used a set of airbags to ensure a soft landing, Sojourner was the first rover to wheel around on the Red Planet.
In 2001, NASA's Mars Odyssey satellite arrived in Mars’ orbit and to this day relays images and data from rovers on the ground. Soon after, NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on the Red Planet and discovered evidence that Mars was once home to large bodies of water.
In 2012, the Curiosity rover arrived in the Gale Crater. A matter of days after landing, it discovered perfectly rounded pebbles that are thought to have been formed by ancient rivers: physical proof that surface water on Mars was present at one point during its history.
Our collective fixation on Mars has its roots in both science and fiction. From Mars Attacks to David Bowie to The Martian, there’s something about the Red Planet that continues to capture imaginations. It’s been said that Mars isn’t actually red, it’s just blushing from all the attention.
But that attention is grounded in data. Mars is a promising target for exploration for all sorts of reasons. For starters, it’s relatively easy to get to. During the window of alignment between Earth and Mars, it can be reached in under seven months.
As a result, we’ve been able to study the Red Planet for decades with various landings and satellites. And several exciting discoveries have encouraged further research.
In terms of atmosphere and geology, Mars is the most similar planet to Earth in our solar system. It has seasons, volcanoes, polar ice caps, and weather. There’s evidence that its surface was once covered with liquid water. Billions of years ago, Mars was warmer and wetter than it is today and conditions would have been suitable for life as we know it.
But there remain more questions than answers. How did Mars go from habitable to rusty desert wasteland? What’s causing methane emissions in its atmosphere? And perhaps the greatest one of all: Is microbial life present on Mars, despite its environmental extremes?
Discoveries on Mars have implications for our understanding of Earth and the wider solar system. Solving Mars’ geophysical mysteries could demystify the history of life on our own planet.
Although Mars has clear similarities with Earth, it’s utterly inhospitable for human life. The average temperature is -81 degrees Fahrenheit, the atmosphere is more than 95% carbon dioxide, and it’s so thin that there's very little shielding from the Sun’s radiation.
Those facts mean that settling down on the Red Planet is a distant dream. More realistic is a manned mission within the next decade - something Elon Musk has confirmed SpaceX is aiming for by 2026. If successful, such a mission could pave the way for a Mars base and the beginnings of something more permanent.
There’s also an emerging market for space tourism, with SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Boeing, and others banking on our collective desire for new horizons to explore.
How willing passengers will be to spend more than a year traveling to and from Mars remains to be seen. And of course there are plenty of engineering challenges to overcome to make such a journey accessible and appealing to a mass market. But there’s little doubt the demand for space tourism will be a catalyst for all manner of scientific discoveries and technological innovations.
There’s also the hope that adventures into space will have a profound impact on our collective perspective. Just as international travel broadens horizons and inspires conservation efforts, a trip around the solar system could reinforce the importance of building a sustainable future for Earth.
Although living on Mars in its current state is an impossibility, there are several theories for how the Red Planet’s atmosphere, temperature, and surface topography could be adapted to sustain colonization efforts. These range from melting Mars’ ice caps with giant mirrors in space to dropping nuclear weapons on its poles. Ironically, we’d need to create a runaway greenhouse effect to warm Mars up and make it hospitable.
Terraforming Mars isn’t something that can happen overnight. It’s a process that could take centuries. But it remains the best option for making humanity multi-planetary and the only realistic target we have for colonization efforts.
History tells us that our species can’t survive on Earth indefinitely. If we want to protect life as we know it from extinction - whether it’s in 50, 500, or 5,000 years - we better get moving.
As the Perseverance rover begins its mission on the Red Planet, it represents something greater: the perseverance of humanity. We are living in a window of opportunity, at a time when extending our footprint beyond Earth is a genuine possibility.