How will Nasa rover look for aliens on Mars? Cameras, helicopter and more revealed
NASA successfully landed its most complex Mars rover yet on Thursday, sparking cheers of joy at the space agency's HQ in California.
The Perseverance robot will scan Martian rock for signs of alien life and carry out tests that are key to future manned missions to the Red Planet.
In an interview ahead of the landing this week, Nasa Chief Scientist James Green laid out the primary goal of the interplanetary mission.
"We want to search the past from the rock record to see if Mars could have supported life," he said on Neil DeGrasse Tyson's podcast, StarTalk.
"My secret wish is that we find it. We don’t anticipate getting fossils, but there are potential cells or microbial indications that life could have survived on Mars in its early history."
The nuclear battery-powered rover has landed at the edge of an ancient, long-vanished river delta and lake bed called the Jezero crater.
It’s thought that the basin was once filled with water and may have been home to alien microbes billions of years ago.
If that’s the case, traces of those microbes should still be present deep within the soil at Jezero – a bit like how dinosaur bones remain in Earth’s soil today.
The primary objective of Perseverance’s two-year mission – dubbed Mars 2020 – is to dig up soil samples that could contain all the proof we need that life grows on other planets.
Advanced power tools will drill samples from Martian rock and seal them into dozens of cigar-sized tubes for eventual return to Earth for further analysis.
Provided all goes to plan, they will be the first such specimens ever collected by humankind from the surface of another planet.
Two future missions to retrieve those samples and fly them back to Earth are in the planning stages by Nasa, in collaboration with the European Space Agency.
Another of the Mars mission’s headline experiments involves a small, drone helicopter named Ingenuity.
Strapped to the bottom of Perseverance, the lightweight craft will attempt the first ever powered flight on Mars in the coming months.
Ingenuity’s “body” is barely larger than a shoebox but it sports two rotary blades measuring a metre long.
Those bonkers proportions are necessary to generate lift in the thin Martian atmosphere.
Ingenuity will test surface-to-surface powered flight on another world for the first time.
Each flight is planned to be at altitudes ranging from 3–5 metres (10–16 ft) above the ground.
If successful, the four-pound (1.8-kg) whirlybird could pave the way for low-altitude aerial surveillance of Mars during later missions.
Other key equipment on board the $2.2billion rover include two microphones that will capture the first audio recordings from the Martian surface, as well as a potentially groundbreaking experiment called Moxie.
Moxie (Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment)is a small contraption housed in the belly of the rover that will convert a small amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen.
It’s a 1/200 scale test model of a design that may be used on Mars to provide future colonists with breathable air.
Perseverance – What’s on board?
Perseverance boasts a total of 19 cameras and two microphones, and carries seven scientific instruments.
- Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry (PIXL)
An X-ray “ray gun” that will help scientists investigate the composition of Martian rock.
2. Radar Imager for Mars' subsurface experiment (RIMFAX)
A ground-penetrating radar that will image buried rocks, meteorites, and even possible underground water sources up to a depth of 10 metres (33ft).
3. Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA)
A bunch of sensors that will take readings of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, and other atmospheric conditions.
4. Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE)
An experiment that will convert Martian carbon dioxide into oxygen. A scaled-up version could be used in future to provide Martian colonists with breathable air.
A suite of instruments for measuring the makeup of rocks and regolith at a distance
A camera system capable of taking “3D” images by combining two or more photos into one.
7. Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC)
From Baker Street to Mars: Sherloc contains an ultraviolet laser that will investigate Martian rock for organic compounds.
The Martian atmosphere is 95 per cent carbon dioxide, which is toxic to humans, and future colonists will need a way to produce oxygen to survive on the planet for long periods.
Other tools onboard involve characterising weather and other environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.
Following Thursday's landing, Steve Jurczyk, Nasa's acting administrator, said: "It's amazing to have Perseverance join Curiosity on Mars and what a credit to the team.
"Just what an amazing team to work through all the adversity and all the challenges that go with landing a rover on Mars, plus the challenges of Covid. "And just an amazing accomplishment."
In other news, you can catch up with all the latest on the Mars 2020 mission on our Perseverance liveblog.
Space geeks have revealed stunning 4K footage of Mars captured by Nasa’s Curiosity rover.
And, Elon Musk has warned that humanity may "self-extinguish" before we can colonise Mars.
What do you make of Nasa's Mars mission? Let us know in the comments!
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