Science

Everything you should know about NASA’s mission to find life on Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover, the most advanced astrobiological laboratory ever sent to another world, streaked through the Martian atmosphere last month and landed safely on the floor of a vast crater, its first stop on a search for traces of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.

Project managers at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory near Los Angeles burst into applause as radio signals confirmed that the six-wheeled rover had a decent landing and arrived within its target zone inside “Jezero Crater”. Starting its journey on 30 July 2020, the vehicle made an incredible journey through space before piercing the Martian atmosphere. The spacecraft’s self-guided algorithm helped it to overcome the “seven minutes of terror” during the final stage.

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life,” flight controller Swati Mohan announced. A minute later, Rover sent its first image through its hazard cameras. It showed the flat, rocky surface of the Jezero crater. The second image taken by the camera onboard the spacecraft showed a view from behind the rover. “It is the beginning of a new era,” NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen said.

The Spacecraft approached Mars at the speed of 19955.866 km/hr. The heat shield slowed it down to one-tenth of its speed and protected the rover from the heat generated due to the atmospheric friction. Then a supersonic parachute popped out of the rover to decelerate the rover and thus reducing its speed to a few hundred kilometers per hour. At that instance, descending under the parachute, Perseverance was still traveling far too fast to land safely, as the Martian atmosphere is too thin for providing better retardation. So, it cut itself loose from the parachute and used rocket thrusters to slow down further. The thrusters allowed it to hover roughly 20 meters above the surface using a rocket platform called a “sky crane”. When the rover was touched, the thruster flew off arbitrarily. 

This was a very similar landing as that of the Curiosity rover. Also, the Perseverance rover is much similar in structure as that of the Curiosity rover, but the Perseverance is much more advanced than its previous version. Apart from new instruments, and an upgraded autopilot system, engineers have built the 1.8 Kg drone-like rotorcraft named the “Ingenuity” and it could serve as a pathfinder to the rover, helping it to be safe from any regolith on its assigned path. At the post-landing briefing, NASA’s acting chief, Steve Jurczyk, called it an “amazing accomplishment,” adding, “I can’t tell you how to overcome with emotion I was”.

The landing represented the riskiest part of the two-year, $2.7 billion endeavor whose primary aim is to search for possible fossilized signs of microbes that may have flourished on Mars about 3bn years ago when the fourth planet from the sun was warmer, wetter, and potentially habitable. But why scientists choose the Jezero crater? Stepping in the assumptions of astrogeologists and astrobiologists, the crater has signs of an ancient lake and a river delta that may have supported microbial life. Scientists hope to find biosignatures embedded in samples of ancient sediments that Perseverance is designed to extract from Martian rock for future analysis back on Earth.

Also, the missions from China and the UAE to mars kicked off last year and are expected to land their respected rovers soon. President Joe Biden tweeted congratulations over the landing. The landing site was chosen for its promise of preserving signs of life. Ingeborg Schwenzer, dean of the Swiss International law school said, “If indications of life were discovered on Mars – and there was a huge responsibility on scientists to be sure – “it would be the most exciting finding since the insight that the Earth is not flat!”

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ARTICLE: PATEL CHAITANYA

SCIENCE/HEALTH EDITOR: KYLE SMITH

PHOTO CREDITS: VOX

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