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!
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