May 8, 2021


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NASA’s Perseverance rover is about to begin searching for life on Mars

3 min read

Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist at Purdue University who is part of the Mastcam-Z team, says scientists are more interested in finding organic matter that is highly concentrated or could only be the result of activity. biological, like stromatolites (fossilized remains created by layers of bacteria). “If we find particular patterns, it could be called biosignature, proof of life,” she says. “Even if it’s not focused, if we see it in the right context, it could be a really powerful sign of a true biosignature.”

After Perseverance arrives, engineers will spend several weeks testing and calibrating all instruments and functions before scientific investigation begins in earnest. Once this is complete, Perseverance will spend a few more months visiting the first exploration sites at Jezero Crater. We could find evidence of life on Mars as early as this summer – if it was ever there.

New world, new technology

Like any new NASA mission, Perseverance is also a platform for demonstrating some of the solar system’s most advanced technologies.

One is MOXIE, a small device that seeks to transform the heavy Martian atmosphere from carbon dioxide into usable oxygen by electrolysis (using an electric current to separate the elements). It’s been done on Earth before, but it’s important to prove it works on Mars if we’re hoping humans will ever be able to live there. The production of oxygen could not only provide a Martian colony with breathable air; it could also be used to generate liquid oxygen for rocket fuel. MOXIE should have approximately 10 opportunities to produce oxygen during the first two years of Perseverance, at different seasons and times of the day. It will run for about an hour each time, producing 6-10 grams of oxygen per session.

There’s also Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram helicopter that could perform the first powered controlled flight ever to another planet. The deployment of Ingenuity (which is stored under the rover) will take approximately 10 days. Its first flight will be about three meters in the air, where it will hover for about 20 seconds. If it manages to fly in the ultra-thin atmosphere of Mars (1% as dense as Earth), Ingenuity will have a much better chance of flying elsewhere. Two cameras on the helicopter will help us see exactly what it sees. Ingenuity alone won’t be essential to exploring Mars, but its success could pave the way for engineers to think of new ways to explore other planets when a rover or lander isn’t enough.

None of these events will be the highlight of perseverance. The climax of the mission, which may take 10 years to complete, will be the return of samples of Martian soil to Earth. Perseverance will drill into the ground and collect more than 40 samples, most of which will be returned to Earth as part of a joint NASA-ESA mission. NASA officials suggest this mission could take place in 2026 or 2028, meaning the earliest possible for their return to Earth is 2031.

Collecting such samples is no easy task. Robotics company Maxar built the Sample Handling Assembly (SHA) that controls the drilling mechanism that collects the Martian soil cores from the ground. The company had to build something that operated on its own, with hardware and electronic components capable of withstanding temperature variations from -73 ° C (100 ° F) at night to over 20 ° C (70 ° F). ) during the day. And most importantly, he had to build something that could cope with Martian dust.

“When you talk about a moving mechanism that has to apply force and go exactly where you need it, you can’t have a tiny particle of dust that stops the whole show,” says Lucy Condakchian, CEO of the robotic. at Maxar. SHA, located under the rover itself, is exposed to a ton of dust raised by the rover’s wheels or by drilling. Various innovations should help it resist this problem, including new lubricants and a metal accordion design for its up and down movement.

However, before any of these things work, the rover has to get to Mars in one piece.

“He never gets old,” says Condakchian. “I’m just as nervous as on previous missions. But that’s a good nervousness – an excitement to start over.

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