The rovers have taught us so much about the Red Planet, its ability to sustain life and any past lives. Spirit and Opportunity taught us that Mars used to house water. Curiosity taught us that it was home to massive lakes, and that it might have had life. About two weeks ago a new Martian rover, Perseverance, was launched by NASA to the Jezero Crater on Mars. Perseverance will be the key to uncovering the history of life on the planet Mars, and starting a new life on it.
Perseverance will land in February of 2021 inside the Jezero Crater. Sometime between 3 billion and 4 billion years ago, a massive river flowed into what was once a lake that filled the Jezero Crater. The Mars 2020 team is hoping to probe the remains of this ancient lake for signs of life. They’re looking specifically for stromatolites, which are geological evidence of microbial life- the first life to form in water on Earth.
The Jezero Crater captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Once Perseverance lands, it will be commanded by a suite of scientists to collect soil samples. Perseverance is the only rover that will collect samples from Mars to take back to Earth. The ESA and NASA are planning a Mars sample return campaign to study martian samples using more complex machinery than the rovers are capable of. While we may want to collect every alien rock we can, Perseverance can only store a few chalk size samples. The rover is carrying a few instruments that will help the scientists of the Mars 2020 team determine what soil or rock to sample and bring back: MastCam-Z, SuperCam, PIXL, RIMFAX, and SHERLOC. These instruments can take panoramic images, perform chemical composition analysis, probe underground, and take X-ray and UV images respectively. By taking and analyzing data from these instruments the rover team can determine which rocks contain patterns of ancient life.
Not only is Perseverance looking at ancient life, it’s also helping scientists understand what human life on Mars could look like. The most ground breaking experiment that Perseverance is performing is called MOXIE. The experiment will attempt to convert Carbon Dioxide in the Martian atmosphere to Oxygen. Much like a tree, MOXIE will breath in the CO2, which makes up ~93% of the Martian atmosphere, and breath out oxygen. It’s possible astronauts could use MOXIE to create breathable air on Mars. But, they can also use it for rocket fuel. Liquid oxygen propellant can be made on Mars to propel astronauts off of the planet and back home.
Moxie Being Installed Onto Perseverance
The MOXIE on Perseverance is about the size of a car battery, and produces .02 lbs of oxygen every hour. If astronauts want to use it to create rocket fuel for human landers, they’d need one about 100 times larger. They’d also need to bring their own oxygen tank to fill, or design their fuel chambers to be refilled by the device. One interesting idea is to station multiple MOXIEs around Mars where astronauts can refuel their fuel canisters and travel back to their home planet.
Of course, I may be getting a bit ahead of myself. We still have 184 days until Perseverance reaches its destination. Join the countdown here.