Perseverance – we have touchdown!

by Dr Josef Borg

An image of the surface of the Red Planet, captured by the Perseverance rover on the Martian surface after successfully landing on February 18. Photo: NASA

This articles appeared on the Times of Malta on February 28, 2021. It is being reproduced here with the consent of the author.

There are a number of moments that can be considered definitive and important in space exploration. On February 18, the Perseverance rover landed on the surface of our planetary neighbour, Mars, in what was NASA’s ninth successful landing on the Red Planet, after around seven months of travel. Following a successful descent through the Martian atmosphere, the rover transmitted images from the Martian surface, confirming its successful landing in the Jezero crater.

The rover’s landing zone was not arbitrarily selected. It is estimated that the Jezero crater was once home to a sizeable lake of water, some 3.5 billion years ago. Even though the water has long since gone from the surface of Mars, evidence of past life might be present in the remaining crater.

There are four main scientific objectives that the rover will assist the Mars Exploration Programme in. The first major objective is to determine the possibility of habitable environments on Mars in the past and, therefore, identify the possibility of such habitats capable of supporting microbial life in the past.

Apart from looking at past habitats themselves, Perseverance’s second aim is to look for biosignatures that might indicate that life might have been present in previously habitable regions. In addition, the rover also aims to retrieve samples from the surface of Mars and store them accordingly. The mission’s final objective is to lay the path for eventual human exploration of the Red Planet, by testing out possible methods of generating oxygen on Mars.

Perseverance can be considered a first in at least one respect. Aboard the rover is the Ingenuity helicopter, intended for the Mars Helicopter Experiment. This will be the first time that a powered-flight vehicle will be driven on another planet. With its onboard instrument being only a camera, Ingenuity is intended for an initial first-test flight on Mars while scouting for possible routes for Perseverance. The main aim of this part of the mission, however, remains strictly to test out the stability of powered flight on another planet.

Although there is strong evidence that all the requirements for life were once present at the Jezero crater, finding signs of ancient life would in itself be one of the more momentous discoveries ever made.

It is, of course, unlikely that signs of ancient lifeforms will actually be found, but this in itself is an important result, and observations will hopefully assist us regardless in better understanding why Mars became uninhabitable while Earth didn’t.

Josef Borg is currently a PhD student within the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy, University of Malta, and also the President of the Astronomical Society of Malta.