Joey Roulette: First round trip to Mars may change everything

Nasa has joined the UAE and China in launching missions to Mars this month. More than half of all spacecraft sent there have either blown up or crashed
Joey Roulette: First round trip to Mars may change everything

The Perseverance rover successfully blasted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida yesterday on board a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket — despite a 4.2-magnitude earthquake that shook southern California just 20 minutes before departure.Picture: John Raoux/AP

And so the race to Mars is on.

Nasa became the latest space agency to try to conquer the Red Planet with its car-sized robotic spacecraft now on its way in a mission to search for evidence of ancient life.

The Perseverance rover successfully blasted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida yesterday on board a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket — despite a 4.2-magnitude earthquake that shook southern California just 20 minutes before departure.

Nasa launch manager Omar Baez said: "We are on our way to Mars, there is no going back."

It is the third mission heading to the Red Planet this month after launches by the UAE and China.

The six-wheeled rover will now travel 500m kilometres over a period of nearly seven months before attempting to land on a 50km crater named Jezero.

Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult because of its thin and dynamic atmosphere and dust storms that rage on its surface — a feat that has been described as "seven minutes of terror".

Nasa's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Nasa is set to launch the car-sized robotic spacecraft to Mars as part of a mission to look for signs of past life on the planet.
Nasa's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Nasa is set to launch the car-sized robotic spacecraft to Mars as part of a mission to look for signs of past life on the planet.

Nasa has succeeded in getting only a handful of functioning probes and rovers on to the Martian surface and more than half of all spacecraft sent there have either blown up or crashed.

Just before lift-off, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said: "There's a reason we call the robot Perseverance — because going to Mars is hard.

"It is always hard. It's never been easy. In this case, it's harder than ever before because we're doing it in the midst of a pandemic."

Satellite images suggest Jezero, located on the western edge of Isidis Planitia — a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator — may have been a lake more than 3.5bn years ago, when Mars was warmer and wetter.

Scientists believe evidence of microbial life could be preserved in the clay and muddy rocks in the crater, if it ever existed on the planet.

Along with several sophisticated instruments that will gather information about Mars' geology, atmosphere, and environmental conditions, the rover is also carrying a small 1.8kg helicopter.

Called Ingenuity, the copter will fly short distances and will mark the first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another planet.

If successful, it could lead to more flying probes on other planets.

Perseverance will also trial technologies to help astronauts make future expeditions to Mars.

One such device includes an instrument, called Moxie, that will practise making oxygen from the planet's atmosphere which is mostly made up of carbon dioxide.

Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa's science mission chief, described the Perseverance mission as "humanity's first round trip to another planet".

The rover will package rock and soil samples in small containers that will be retrieved during future missions in 2031.

Scientists in Britain will help Perseverance select the Martian samples to be brought back to Earth.

Researchers at Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum will identify samples that could contain evidence of past life and study the mineralogy and geochemistry of the different rocks found in the crater.

Professor Mark Sephton, an astrobiologist at Imperial, said: "I hope that the samples we select and return will help current and future generations of scientists answer the question of whether there was ever life on the Red Planet.

"With one carefully chosen sample from Mars, we could discover that the history of life on the Earth is not unique in the universe."

Scientists have long debated whether Mars — once a much more hospitable place than it is today — ever harboured life. Water is considered a key ingredient for life, and Mars billions of years ago had lots of it on the surface before the planet became a harsh and desolate outpost.

Within a few months, we might learn if there was indeed life on Mars.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launching, carrying the Perseverance rover. Picture: Joel Kowsky//Nasa
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launching, carrying the Perseverance rover. Picture: Joel Kowsky//Nasa

China launched an unmanned probe to Mars last week, aiming to demonstrate its technological prowess as it makes a bid for global leadership in space with its first independent mission to visit another planet.

Its unmanned Mars probe, named Tianwen-1 after 'Tianwen', or 'Questions to Heaven', comprises an orbiter, lander, and rover to be delivered by the powerful Long March 5 rocket. If successful, it will make China the first country to orbit, land, and deploy a rover in its inaugural mission.

The Long March 5’s journey through space will take about seven months, while landing will take seven minutes. China’s probe will carry several scientific instruments to observe the planet’s atmosphere and surface, searching for signs of water and ice.

In 2003, China became the third country to put a man in space with its own rocket after the former Soviet Union and the United States. 

In 2011, a joint Mars mission with Russia failed when the Russian spacecraft carrying the probe failed to exit the Earth’s orbit and disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean.

Six spacecraft are currently orbiting Mars — three American, two European, and one Indian. Nasa has two operational spacecraft on the surface.

The United Arab Emirates launched its first mission to Mars, the Hope Probe, from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre on July 20. The first Arab mission to the Red Planet, it is due to arrive there in seven months and head into orbit to gather atmospheric data.

Nasa has already sent four Martian rovers to the Red Planet, having learned crucial lessons from the Curiosity rover that landed on the planet’s surface in 2012 and continues to traverse a Martian plain south-east of 250m-deep Jezero Crater, once thought to have been a lake the size of Lake Tahoe.

July 30, 2020 - The largest and most capable rover NASA has ever sent to Mars will embark on a journey to search for evidence of past life on the Red Planet and lay the groundwork for a mission to send humans into deep space. Photo Credit: Graphic News
July 30, 2020 - The largest and most capable rover NASA has ever sent to Mars will embark on a journey to search for evidence of past life on the Red Planet and lay the groundwork for a mission to send humans into deep space. Photo Credit: Graphic News

Nasa’s InSight spacecraft, the first robotic lander designed to study the deep interior of a distant world, touched down safely on the surface of Mars in November 2018 with instruments to detect planetary seismic rumblings never measured anywhere but Earth.

The US plans to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s under a programme that envisions using a return to the moon as a testing platform for human missions before making the more ambitious crewed journey to Mars.

Perseverance will conduct an experiment to convert elements of the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into propellant for future rockets launching off the Martian surface, or to produce breathable oxygen for future astronauts. 

The rover will also collect and store rock and soil samples intended to be returned to Earth in the future.



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