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Mar

Touchdown! The Pursuit of Ancient Martian Life has already begun

by Antonios E. Alvertos, ICONHIC Research Team
3min read

 

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ASA’s Perseverance Rover touched down on the Jezero Crater, Mars on February 18, 2021 at 20:55 GMT, after “seven minutes of terror”, and dug into its mission right away, seeking signs of ancient Martian microbial life and collecting rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) samples for possible return to Earth. The much-anticipated Mars 2020 mission, materialized by the Perseverance rover, could answer key questions about Mars’ history and evolution, and is a milestone in humanity’s endeavors for the first manned mission to explore the Red Planet. As only eight out of the 14 landing attempts on the planet have been successful, in what is deemed by NASA “one of the most difficult manoeuvres in the space business”, the mission has already made it to the Space Exploration Pantheon. By the time this article is written, the rover has sent over 6,700 raw images of the Martian surface to Earth and has spent 13 sols (Martian days), as per NASA’s mission webpage.

 

Why the Jezero Crater?

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ver the past two decades, landed and orbital missions launched by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, have shown that Mars was once very different from the cold and dry planet it is today, with evidence supporting the existence of wet conditions billions of years ago. It may be the case, that such environments lasted long enough to allow for the development of microbial life. The selection of the landing site, close to an ancient river delta in a lake that 3.5 billion years ago filled the 500m-deep Jezero Crater, is highly strategical: where water used to enter the lake, giving birth to a sedimentation zone full of clays and carbonates, organic molecules trapped in the terrestrial analogous of stromatolites may have been preserved to date. “If we see anything like that kind of structure in Jezero, we’ll be making a beeline straight for it because that could be the Holy Grail of Mars astrobiology,” Dr. Briony Horgan from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, explains in a recent interview to BBC news. Perseverance will drill into the sediments in its pursuit of ancient microbial activity. The most propitious samples will be packaged for return to Earth by later missions.

 

Figure 2: Perseverance landed by an ancient river delta at the Jezero Crater, which scientists think was a lake 3.5 billion years ago. Sedimentation deposits in the area may have preserved organic molecules, maintaining ancient Martian life across the ages. Credit: BBC News.

 

Perseverance is a 1-tonne Instrumentation Marvel

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he 1,025-kg & 3-m long rover, slightly heavier than its predecessor, Curiosity, is the most advanced robot ever to be sent to the Red Planet, and will start collecting and caching rock samples, plucking carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, and searching for water-ice underground, while “Ingenuity”, a stowaway helicopter mounted on its belly, will attempt powered aerodynamic flight, paving the way for flying reconnaissance drones on extra-terrestrial future human missions. “After Perseverance deploys Ingenuity to the surface, the helicopter will have a 30-sols experimental flight test window,” JPL stated. Perseverance will carry seven instruments to conduct unprecedented science and test new technology on the Red Planet. They are: an advanced camera system with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging capability with the ability to zoom; (2.) an instrument that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy at a distance; (3.) an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and high-resolution imager to map the fine-scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials; (4.) a spectrometer that will provide fine-scale imaging and uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser to map mineralogy and organic compounds; (5.) the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), a technology demonstration that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide; (6.) a set of sensors that will provide measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity, and dust size and shape; and (7.) a ground-penetrating radar that will provide centimeter-scale resolution of the geologic structure of the subsurface.

 

Figure 3: Perseverance Rover hardware. The rover will measure Mar’s microscope geology, dash symbol atmosphere, test tube environmental conditions, microbe potential signs of past life. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

 

 

Building Extraterrestrial Resilience – One Hazard at a Time

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erseverance carries six newly developed Hazard Detection Cameras (HazCams), that detect hazards to the front and back pathways of the rover, such as large rocks, trenches, or sand dunes, providing a 3D map of the immediate surroundings that enable the rover to navigate around them. What is more, during the extremely demanding landing stage, Perseverance used a Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) technology, which essentially compares real-time imagery with an onboard map of the landing area to direct the rover-carrying spacecraft away from hazard zones, such as hills, rock fields, dunes, the walls of the crater itself. Landing on stable ground and steadily maneuvering while dodging surficial rocks are the main tasks of the Perseverance safety protocol. However, when it comes to dealing with the extra-terrestrial risk landscape for the development of the first space hubs and habitats, things get even more complicated. Extra-terrestrial hazards, spanning from meteoroids collapse, ground quakes, and soil toxicity, to sandstorms, radiation, and low gravity, comprise one of the greatest challenges of planet exploration and colonization missions, that need to be carefully designed, accounting for the continuous shielding and protection of the exposed equipment to a rather hostile and uncertain ensemble of environmental conditions.

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s with the accomplishment of the Perseverance landing milestone, where NASA and JPL-Caltech demonstrated to what success strong teamwork and a common vision can lead, understanding and designing for extra-terrestrial hazards is an arduous task, calling for interdisciplinary collaborations and strong international synergies. The vision of developing and settling resilient extra-terrestrial habitats starts from researching the fundamental features and nature of such hazardous environments and coming up with structural typologies, materials, and concept-level designs to accommodate them and protect life-holding or other critical assets (such as robots, fuel tanks, and power-generation facilities).

 

Extra-terrestrial hazards, spanning from meteoroids collapse, ground quakes, and soil toxicity, to sandstorms, radiation, and low gravity, comprise one of the greatest challenges of planet exploration and colonization missions, that need to be carefully designed, accounting for the continuous shielding and protection of the exposed equipment to a rather hostile and uncertain ensemble of environmental conditions.

 

Figure 4: Image taken with the Rear Right Hazard Avoidance Camera of Perseverance on February 2021 (sol 2 of the mission) at the local mean solar time of 15:37:11. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

 

 

About the featured image

The Martian touchdown moment! Image taken by several cameras abroad the descent stage as NASA’S Perseverance rover touched down on the Red Planet on February 18, 2021. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech