Perseverance on Mars

It was exciting to see the successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover in Mars’s Jezero Crater this past week. Although I don’t study Mars as part of my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory, the red planet has long fascinated me. I love the journey of discovery we’ve taken in learning about the planet from the nineteenth century through the present day, from early observers who noted linear artifacts on the planet’s surface and thought they were canals to modern day engineers who are sending robots to explore the red planet. I have been asked why we need another rover to drive around a crater rather than going to a more exciting place like Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system or Valles Marineris a canyon that dwarfs Earth’s Grand Canyon. The simple fact is that the primary mission of Perseverance is to look for evidence that life existed on Mars. No mission has looked for direct signs of life since the Viking landers in the mid 1970s, a mission I followed with keen interest as a kid!

Close up of a river delta in Jezero crater Perseverance scientists hope to explore. Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin

Perseverance’s landing site was Jezero Crater, which shows evidence of once having held water. There are inflow and outflow channels, plus a river delta. This makes it a great site to look for evidence of either existing or fossilized microbial life. Not only is the landing site interesting, but the rover is not just a copy of previous successful rovers. It also includes the ability to gather samples, save them, and put them on a rocket which can be blasted into orbit, where a future mission can bring them back to Earth. This is a truly exciting aspect of this mission. When I heard geologist and astronaut Dr. Harrison Schmidt speak at Bubonicon a couple of years ago, he emphasized how valuable samples in an Earth-based laboratory can be. He pointed out that geologists are still making discoveries from the lunar rocks he brought back in the 1960s. Getting some Martian rock samples back on Earth would be a real treasure.

Perseverance also includes some cool features. My personal favorite is the Ingenuity helicopter. As I understand, this little helicopter is currently stowed in Perseverance’s belly. When it’s deployed, it’ll give engineers the opportunity to test powered flight on Mars. If this works, this might allow us to send more sophisticated flying craft to Mars in the future that could go farther and learn more than the wheeled rovers we’ve been sending. Another cool instrument on Perseverance is a microphone. Believe it or not, for as many times as we’ve been to Mars, we don’t know what it sounds like to be on the surface. As a writer, I look forward to that extra layer of sensory experience.

You can follow Perseverance’s progress on NASA’s website. This map shows where Perseverance is and will chart it’s progress as it begins it journey of discovery: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/where-is-the-rover/

You can learn more about the rover and its mission objectives at: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/overview/

Although this mission doesn’t take us to some of Mars’s more dramatic sites, it does pave the way for future journeys to those places. I really want to see those places and I imagine a visit to both Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris in my novel The Solar Sea, which is available until March 4 as part of the Expansive Futures StoryBundle. In that bundle, you get eighteen excellent science fiction books for one low price. Learn more at: https://storybundle.com/scifi

Perseverance in Space

Last Thursday, I woke up early to watch as NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was launched. The mission includes the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter drone. The mission’s main goal is to look for signs of ancient life on Mars and collect rock samples which may be returned to Earth.

The launch of the Mars 2020 Mission

The rocket launch itself couldn’t have been more perfect. The weather at the Florida launch site was beautiful and the rocket lifted off the pad, flying straight and true. In fact, it lifted off so quickly, I couldn’t snap the screenshot from my computer before it left the pad! The rover is scheduled to arrive at Mars early next year. It incorporates many design elements from the highly successful Curiosity rover. It also incorporates autonomous driving technology, so NASA engineers can give it a course and let it avoid obstacles using onboard computers. In fact, that’s part of the reason for the helicopter drone. The drone can fly over the surface and help Perseverance map its course over the Martian landscape.

The primary mission objective is to look for evidence that life existed at one time on Mars. There are on-board instruments for achieving this, including the SHERLOC spectrometer which can accomplish microscopic imaging and help search for organic compounds. Perseverance will also collect samples which could be returned to Earth by a future Mars mission. As emphasized when I met Dr. Harrison Schmidt last year, nothing allows for detailed analysis like having actual physical samples in a lab. One of the reasons we would like to know whether life ever existed on Mars is that it would give us a better sense for how easy it would be to find life elsewhere. What’s more, there are some theories that life on Earth actually started on Mars and that it came to Earth as the result of an asteroid collision. So, we could gain insight into our own origins.

I watched the launch as part of an event hosted by The Planetary Society and Space For Humanity. The Planetary Society’s CEO, Bill Nye spoke after the launch. One question I see raised when discussing space exploration is, “wouldn’t it be better to spend that money on problems here on Earth?” This seems especially prescient in the middle of a global pandemic. Of course, you physically can’t invest all the funds on Earth into one problem. That would utterly destroy the economy and leave people hungry and destitute. Nye noted, “All the money we spend on space, is spent on Earth.” Investing in space is paying the salaries of the engineers, scientists, and technicians who make this happen. It’s investing in the companies that build the parts for these craft and that money gets reinvested into the economy. What’s more we receive dividends in these investments such as new technologies that do make the world a better place to live. Those technologies may even help to develop and deliver vaccines.

David the Space Cowboy wants to know when it’s time to board!

Space for Humanity is a group who has a vision of giving as diverse a group of people the chance to experience traveling to space. I believe that’s a worthy goal. After all, we need the experience of many people from many backgrounds if we’re going to reach for the stars. One of the places where we may succeed in getting to space in the near future is from Space Port America, just north of where I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. One of the people who spoke after the launch was George Whitesides, Chief Space Officer for Virgin Galactic, who said their next goal is to accomplish manned flight from the New Mexico spaceport. In the photo above, I’m being a space cowboy, hanging out with one of the Virgin Galactic craft that may actually travel into space from this area. Time to saddle up and move out!