Washington – (AFP) – NASA’s “Perseverance” mobile robot lands on Mars on Thursday, after a space flight that lasted seven months, decades of work and billions of dollars spent to answer a single question: Was there any life outside Earth?
For the first time, the overt goal of the US space mission is to find traces of past life on the Red Planet by collecting about thirty rock samples over a period of years.
The sealed tubes will have to be transported to Earth via a later mission in the next decade, with the aim of analyzing them and possibly finding an answer to “one of the questions that have haunted us for centuries, which is: Are we alone in the world?”, According to NASA’s assistant director for science, Thomas Zurbuchen.
Perseverance is the largest and most complex vehicle ever sent to Mars. It is manufactured in the famous “Jet Propulsion” laboratory in California and weighs close to a ton, and is equipped with a robotic arm over two meters long in addition to 19 cameras.
On Thursday, it will undertake a high-stakes mission at the most dangerous landing site ever due to its terrain, the Jezero Crater.
Shortly after 20:30 GMT, the spacecraft will enter the Martian atmosphere at a speed of 20 thousand kilometers per hour, with protection from its thermal shield, which will only be received after opening a supersonic parachute. Also, eight engines directed towards the planet’s surface will slow down its movement before spreading its six frames in preparation for descending through hanging wires from the landing layer until friction with the surface.
The person responsible for this dangerous landing, Alan Chen, said during a press conference that “the sky appears clear for the landing,” but “the landing remains the most dangerous part of the mission and we cannot guarantee its success.”
If the probe “Perseverance” arrives intact, it will be able to send its first images shortly after.
In evidence that the mission was the result of international cooperation, French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country designed one of the many scientific tools in the probe, will follow the landing course from the headquarters of the National Center for Space Studies in Paris.
– A stroke of luck? –
The researchers believe that the Jizero Crater more than three and a half billion years ago contained a deep lake about 50 km wide.
“We have very strong evidence that Mars had life in a distant past,” said Ken Willford, assistant official in the mission. “The question is: Is life on Earth due to something wrong or a stroke of luck?”
Withdrawing the first samples is scheduled to start this summer. Several paths can be adopted for drilling in different environments, including the river, the ancient lake, and the delta formed by the river that used to flow into it.
Scientists are looking for what they call biological fingerprints, which are traces of microbial life “that may take various forms,” for example, “chemical” or “changes in the environment,” according to the director of astrobiology at NASA Mary Voitk.
She is very enthusiastic about the mission, saying, “We astrobiologists have been dreaming about this mission for decades.”
And the scientist participating in the project, Ken Farley, enumerated the expected possibilities for the results of the mission, saying, “Either we find (effects) of life and that will be an exceptional discovery, or this will not happen (…), which will indicate that all habitable environments are not inhabited,” and it will be necessary to search other places.
He indicated that the approximately 450 members supervising this stage will work in exceptional circumstances due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He explained that the team members will carry out the tasks assigned to them “from the living rooms of their homes in all countries of the world.”
– Raft and oxygen machine –
However, the first months of the mission will not be dedicated to this first goal, as parallel trials are scheduled.
In particular, NASA seeks to prove that it is possible to fly a motorized vehicle to another planet. The helicopter, called “Ingenuity”, should succeed in rising in air equal to 1% thickness of that in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Two microphones will also be able to record audio for the first time on Mars.
Another goal is to prepare for future human missions by directly experimenting with producing oxygen on site, with a device called “MOXI”. This device, which is about the size of a car battery, is supposed to be able to produce about ten grams of oxygen in an hour, by absorbing carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, similar to what plants do.
This oxygen will enable future human settlers to breathe, and it will also be used as fuel.
“NASA” invested about $ 2.4 billion to build and launch the “March 2020” mission. The cost of landing and operations at the site is initially estimated at $ 300 million.
And “Perseverance” will be the fifth probe to walk on the surface of Mars, all of which are American since the first mission in 1997, and one of them, the “Curiosity” probe, is still active.
However, China has finally put its “Tianwen-1” spacecraft into Mars orbit, and it contains a robotic robot, which is expected to land on Mars in May.