The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover is set to land on the Red Planet, Feb. 18. The goal of this mission is to search for signs of life.
“What we get to do with our Rover is go to an area that’s much older, has sedimentary rocks and evidence of an environment where there may have been ancient life,” Dr. Chris Herd, a Canadian scientist at the University of Alberta, said.
Perseverance is equipped with enhanced capabilities, instruments and tests that will be the most advanced and ambitious rover to ever be sent to Mars.
According to Herd, Earth is roughly 470 million kilometres away from Mars. When the spacecraft launched, Mars was at its closest point. The spacecraft then spends six months catching up to the planet.
SEVEN MINUTES OF TERROR
According to Dr. Cassandra Marion, science advisor at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, the landing will be accomplished by a sky crane manoeuvre, also known as the “seven minutes of terror.”
“It takes seven to 12 minutes to send the radio signal from Mars to Earth. It also takes seven minutes from when the space craft enters the atmosphere to when it hits the ground,” Marion explained.
A CANADIAN EFFORT
This is a NASA-led mission with an international effort that includes Canadian participation.
Herd is one of the world’s top leading experts on Mars meteorites and one of 15 return sample scientists selected to participate in the mission.
“My whole role on the mission it to help the mission decide when to stop and take samples and have documentation.”
He recalled he wanted to be involved in collecting samples from Mars and describes the possibility now of that coming to fruition as a dream come true.
“It’s a huge honour to me to be chosen to play this huge role in the mission.”
POSSIBLE SIGNS OF AN INHABITABLE ENVIRONMENT
In the months following the February landing, the Ingenuity helicopter will be conducting test flights, according to Marion.
Ingenuity was designed specifically to fly in a much thinner atmosphere.
Marion said Mars has about one per cent of the density of the Earth’s atmosphere.
“If it’s successful, it will pave the way for flying into those hard-to-reach areas for future rovers,” she said.
The other demonstration is called MOXIE. Marion told CTV News Edmonton the goal of MOXIE is to take Mars’ carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere and turn it into oxygen.
“Oxygen is really important for future human missions,” Marion added.
“We need oxygen for astronauts to breathe, but also oxygen is a huge component in rocket fuel. So if we ever want to send humans to Mars [and] we want to get them back, we’re going to need fuel on the spot.”
According to Marion, in addition to water and chemical signatures on Mars, there are signs that life could have been present on Mars in a warmer, wetter past.
“We would be ecstatic if we found actual life. And we’ll only really know for sure when we have samples back on Earth,” she said.
However, Herd added that if nothing is detected in the samples, that’s a significant discovery in itself.
“It tells us there were environments that were habitable but not inhabited on Mars,” he said.
“That really highlights something about the uniqueness of the life on Earth as a consequence.”
ARCHITECTURE OF MISSION PLANNING
According to Marion, Mars is only at its closest point to Earth once every 26 months. That’s why multiple missions are planned within mere weeks of each other.
“Mars, next to the moon, is our nearest neighbour and is also kind of like our sister planet. The planet that is most like Earth,” she said.
Herd told CTV News the team will be working one Mars day ahead of the rover when planning where to send it to retrieve samples next.
“We are going to have all the images, the mineral data and chemical information and all that documentation with each and every sample that we collect,” Herd said.
“That is the thing that will make those samples so much more scientifically valuable than any other sample from Mars.”
Perseverance has 23 cameras onboard. Images of the landing will be of the highest quality we’ve ever seen, according to Herd.
“It’s going to look like what it would look like if somebody stepped out of a spacecraft that just touches down.”
Marion explained all the information from this mission will be crucial in determining if people can be put on the surface of another planet.
“There are a series of things that we still need to figure out to be successful at having long-term human missions to Mars,” she said.
“We’re going to get there.”
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