Seven months of space travel, decades of work and billions of dollars to answer one question: Has life found anywhere other than Earth? NASA’s mission reaches its climax on Thursday as the last spacecraft lands on Mars, Persevere.
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For the first time, the US space agency mission has a clear goal of finding traces of ancient life on the Red Planet, by collecting up to thirty rock samples over several years.
The sealed tubes will then have to be returned to Earth on a future mission, in the 1930s, in order to analyze, and perhaps in the end it can answer “one of the questions that have inhabited us for centuries, which is: Are we alone in the universe?” NASA Assistant Director of Science on Wednesday.
Perseverance is the largest and most complex vehicle ever to be sent to Mars. Built in the legendary Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, it weighs a ton and is equipped with a robotic arm over two meters long and 19 cameras.
On Thursday, he attempted a risky maneuver at the most dangerous landing site ever, due to its relief: the Jizero Crater.
Shortly after 8:30 pm GMT (9:30 pm in France), it will enter Mars’ atmosphere at 20,000 km / h, protected by a heat shield that will only be released after opening a huge hypersonic parachute. Eight ground-oriented motors will eventually slow him down before spreading its six wheels, suspended along cables until it touches the ground.
“The sky looks clear for the landing tomorrow. But even with a clear sky, the landing is the most dangerous part of the mission, and we cannot guarantee its success,” recalls Alan Chen, in charge of the rotor landing, at a press conference.
If the persistence arrives intact, the first images can pass soon after.
Evidence that the mission is also the result of international cooperation: French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country designed one of the spacecraft’s many scientific instruments, will attend the landing at the headquarters of the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes) in Paris.
Researchers believe that Jezero Crater was home to a deep lake about 50 km wide over a period of three and a half billion years.
“We have very strong evidence that Mars could have housed life in the distant past,” said Ken Willford, deputy chief of the mission, on Wednesday. “The question is: Is (life) on Earth an anomaly, a stroke of luck?”
The first samples should start this summer. Several routes can be excavated in different environments, including the shore of the ancient lake, and the delta formed by a river flowing through it.
Scientists are looking for what they call biomarkers: traces of microbial life that “can take all kinds of forms,” for example “chemicals” or “environmental changes,” said Marie Voetke, director of the Astrobiology Program at NASA. “We astrobiologists have been dreaming about this mission for decades,” she said enthusiastically.
Ken Farley, the science project, warned, “Either we find life, and this will be an exceptional discovery, or it will not be (…) and it will indicate that all habitable environments are uninhabited.” And that we have to look elsewhere.
He stressed that the 450 or so team members who will test this stage will also work in exceptional circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic: “The mission will be carried out from the people’s lounge, all over the world.”
But the first months of the mission will not be devoted to this first goal. Parallel experiments are planned.
NASA particularly wants to prove that it is possible to drive a motorized vehicle onto another planet. The helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, would have to rise in the air at a density equal to 1% of the density of Earth’s atmosphere.
Microfenin can also, for the first time, record the sound of Mars.
NASA will also test oxygen production directly on site. An instrument called MOXIE, the size of a car battery, should be able to produce up to 10 grams of oxygen in an hour, by absorbing carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere – like a plant.
This oxygen could be used by future settlers to breathe, but also as fuel.
Perseverance will be the fifth vehicle to set foot on Mars soil. From the start, in 1997, they were all American, and one of them, Curiosity, was still working.
However, China recently placed its “Tianwen-1” probe in orbit around Mars, equipped with a remote-controlled robot, which is expected to try to land in May.
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