(CN) — NASA officials updated the public on the rover Perseverance's mission to Mars with a landing that is only weeks away, paving the way for the return of soil and rock samples from the red planet and answers to age-old questions about whether life has ever existed beyond Earth.
NASA held its pre-landing press conference Wednesday to detail the challenges associated with the Feb. 18 landing in the Jezero Crater, where the rover will explore an ancient Martian lakebed taking soil samples and searching for signs of ancient life.
“It would be, of course, a fabulous scientific discovery to find that life existed beyond Earth,” said Ken Farley, a Mars 2020 project scientist. “It would also be an important discovery for humanity in general. We all know this is one of these questions we have pondered for a long time.”
Farley said scientists don’t expect to find fossil records of ancient creatures, but instead will look for biosignatures of fossil records that demonstrate microbial life once flourished in the abundant lakes and oceans that formerly proliferated on Mars.
For instance, life was abundant on planet Earth 3.5 billion years ago, when water was widely distributed throughout the red planet. But life on Earth at that time was only microbial, so scientists will look for similar records geologists have found on Earth.
But the Perseverance must first land and according to the scientists on Wednesday’s panel, that will be no mean feat.
“Entry and descent landing is the most critical and dangerous part of the mission,” said Allen Chen, the scientist in charge of the rover’s entry, descent and landing.
The Jezero Crater is one of the most scientifically rich areas of Mars. It contains obvious signs that it used to be a lake, with a river cutting through the canyon, and unmistakable evidence of a delta where the ancient river once filtered into the lake.
However, it will be a difficult place to land due to the formidable cliffs that once served as the rim of the lake, along with the sand and scatterings of boulders at the landing site.
NASA has been developing new landing techniques and technologies that will facilitate what scientists hope will be a successful landing.
“It’s truly exciting how our technologies have matured, bringing us to the point where we can attempt this amazing feat,” said Lori Glaze, Nasa’s director of planetary science.
The mission is also not just looking for records of ancient life but is part of a complicated process to collect samples that will be returned to Earth to be analyzed by scientists to help bring NASA’s stated goal to put astronauts on Mars to fruition sometime in the 2030s.
Perseverance will collect soil and regolith — broken rock and dust — samples as it patrols the Jezero Crater. Those samples will then be stored in various caches on Mars. In 2026, a “fetch rover” will be deployed to the planet to collect the caches and deliver them to a rocket stationed on the Martian surface. The rocket will launch into orbit around the planet, where another orbiter will collect the samples and return them to Earth.
“Generations of scientists have wanted a sample from Mars to study,” Glaze said.
The planetary scientist also said the samples will be important to study for signs of toxicity that could hamper astronauts’ missions to the red planet, which remains the single largest long-term goal of the American space agency.
Other goals pursued by Perseverance include the launch of the Ingenuity helicopter, which can photograph the mission from the air and target potential locations of scientific import.
“It will be the first powered flight on another planet,” said Matt Wallace, deputy project manager.
Perseverance will also tote other scientific equipment, including a module capable of changing the local atmosphere from carbon dioxide to oxygen — a critical component of any future human exploration of the planet.
Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, said the Biden administration remains focused on the goal. Former President Donald Trump also routinely expressed enthusiasm for the project.
“We delivered a moonrock from Apollo 17 to the Oval Office, a symbol of the new administration’s ‘Moon to Mars’ approach,” Zurbuchen said. “As a destination, Mars continues to capture our imagination.”Follow @@MatthewCRenda
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