After more than four decades, NASA will resume its direct search for evidence of life on Mars with the Mars 2020 mission and the landing of the Perseverance rover taking place this Thursday (18). Follow it live with the messenger from 5 p.m.
The sign confirming a safe descent to the red planet should be painted at 5:55 p.m. – with a certain degree of uncertainty, like everything that surrounds an arrival in the neighboring world.
You can consider the glass half full or half empty. On the one hand, only American missions have successfully sunk to the surface of Mars to date. Russians and Europeans failed in several attempts. On the optimistic side, the history of the US space agency NASA’s attempts is very good. So far there have been 9 missions with only 1 failure (Mars Polar Lander failed to land in 1999; they hit Viking 1 and 2 in 1976, Mars Pathfinder 1997, Spirit and Opportunity Rover 2004 and Phoenix Probe 2008), the Curiosity Rover in 2012 and the InSight Probe in 2018).
This creates a certain degree of confidence in those responsible for the mission, which is led by JPL, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. But nobody is wrong about the tension. “Landing on Mars is always a very dramatic thing. There is no guarantee that everything will go as smoothly as we expect, ”explains Brazilian physicist Ivair Gontijo, who is participating in the JPL mission and is directly involved in one of the Perseverance instruments SuperCam, installed on the mast of the vehicle.
Incidentally, in the Curiosity mission, Gontijo was involved in the development of the radar system with which the vehicle could land. Endurance uses the same system that includes a parachute and powered crane to put the rover on the ground (see table below). Now there is an improvement to the embedded artificial intelligence system that has enabled mission managers to choose a more robust, but scientifically promising, landing site in the Jezero crater.
“The curiosity could not let up as to where perseverance is going. It descended into a crater 154 km in diameter, which has a sufficiently large flat region. The Jezero crater has a diameter of 40 km, is five times smaller and the flat region is very small, ”reports Gontijo. “He will use a technique called relative terrain navigation. He will take photos during the descent, compare them to orbital photos, and try to avoid obstacles, choosing for himself the region in which to descend.”
Landing will hit the top of the atmosphere for seven electrifying minutes at 20,000 km / h while the process is monitored using telemetry data.
SEARCH FOR LIFE
In an emblematic way, the mission has a double view of the past and the future. The rover’s main scientific goal is to find evidence of early life on Mars – fossil evidence that the red planet was inhabited 4 to 3 billion years ago at a time when it was bluer, like Earth.
A direct investigation for biological signals is something NASA has not done, present or past, since the Viking missions that made ambiguous discoveries in the 1970s that were eventually classified as negative.
Then the motto “follow the water” followed. Since water is essential to life as we know it, the missions have turned to deciphering the hydrological past of Mars. It is therefore not surprising that the past decade has focused heavily on studying and demonstrating this compound in Martian soil.
With Curiosity, the first step was taken, which was still shy: the search began for organic compounds, that is, for complex carbon molecules that are closely related to life. And now we are going to the last step with perseverance, the search for fossil signs of life.
The name not only seems to reflect this arc in the search for Martian biology, but above all the challenge of launching and preparing the mission in the midst of the pandemic.
In addition to contemplating Mars’ past, the mission is a first step towards a promising morning for the red planet. There is a system embedded in the rover that collects samples in small, sealed tubes. They are left gathered at the surface where a next mission picks them up and puts them on a rocket for the first launch from another planet.
Returning samples is seen as the main objective of the Mars exploration program for this decade and is being carried out in partnership between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). Perseverance is the first step in this new phase.
After that, a manned mission remains. Something that persistence can also contribute. The moxie experiment that has started will for the first time generate oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere. It will be an essential technology for future human visits to the planet.
For the first time, a mini helicopter called Ingenuity is also being tested, which, if it works, will make the first flight with the airlift on another planet. The low Martian gravity plays in its favor only 40% of the earth’s population. We play against the low atmospheric density, one hundredth of us. Soil tests in low pressure chambers suggest it should work. But like everything in space exploration, certainty only comes when it happens.
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