The U.S. finds itself in the midst of an intriguing space race to find evidence of any life on Mars.
NASA’s Perseverance rover has been on the surface of the Red Planet since February. And in recent weeks, the space agency’s most ambitious Mars mission to date has already notched a number of firsts.
We get an update on the mission from local astronomer and space enthusiast Mark Hammergren.
The following Q&A has been edited for length.
You gave “Chicago Tonight” a preview of this mission just ahead of its scheduled landing on Mars in February. Let’s talk about some of the things that NASA has been doing on Mars since then: First off, for the first time ever it has flown a helicopter drone on another planet. How is this drone being used?
The Ingenuity helicopter is really just a fantastic advance in engineering and capabilities for science. As we know here on Earth, getting up in the air really expands your horizons. It opens up great amounts of terrain (and) you can obviously travel much further and much faster than you can rolling around on the ground.
How is the helicopter controlled given there can be a communication delay of up to 20 minutes between Earth and Mars?
It is controlled completely autonomously. That is to say that once the instructions are loaded into the drone it lifts based on the signals it receives from the Perseverance rover (which in turn receives those signals from Earth). There is really very limited AI in the drone as far as terrain avoidance goes … but it does know when it is getting close to the surface of Mars so it can make soft touchdowns. This is very much a prototype.
Another first for NASA on this mission is that it has used an instrument called MOXIE to convert Mars’ carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen. This seems potentially hugely significant given NASA’s plans to one day send humans to Mars.
Yes, indeed. Mars’ atmosphere is almost entirely carbon dioxide, and it’s a very thin atmosphere. So producing oxygen, both for astronauts to breathe and also as a fuel source – as an oxidizer for the rocket engines that would carry people and cargo off of Mars back to Earth — that’s vitally important. We don’t want to have to carry all of that stuff from the Earth to space and then to Mars. Taking advantage of what are called in situ resources would just open up so many doors for further exploration.
With this particular experiment they only produced a small amount of oxygen. Presumably the idea is that once the technology is proven to work you would scale it up for a future Mars base or colony.
That’s it exactly. With prototypes like MOXIE we can see what the efficiency of this process in practice on Mars.
NASA’s Artemis mission aims to put humans back on the moon by 2024 – but that is an ambitious deadline and I think most observers expect that date to slip back. Does NASA have a clear timeline for when it aims to send people to Mars?
I don’t know if they have a definitive timeline. I’m pretty sure they do not, no one has a definitive timeline for that. In general, we know that good opportunities for launching people or spacecraft to Mars occur every two to two-and-a-half years. Most numbers I have seen ambitiously put humans traveling to Mars in the 2030s.
The main objective of the Perseverance mission is to search for evidence of ancient life on Mars in the Jezero Crater, an ancient lake which once appears to have been fed by a river. Have scientists had an opportunity to have Perseverance analyze any rocks as they search perhaps microbial fossils?
They’ve really just started using the scientific instruments on the rover. They’ve been using its robotic arm to extend and examine some of the rocks up close. They’ve been using the cameras on the rover to look for interesting rocks in the vicinity to get samples of, but they really haven’t gone very science-heavy in terms of the rover right now. They’re waking systems up, testing, making sure they are running. And then, a big focus in the very near term is going to be acquiring a sample of rock and soil very nearby. That’s in case something goes wrong with the mission a month or two down the road. You want to have what they call a contingency sample and some contingency studies. This has been the case for pretty much every exploratory mission.
And that’s just in case things don’t last as long or work quite as well as hoped?
That’s right. With Apollo 11 on the moon, one of the first things the astronauts did after making sure they were safe on the moon is that Neil Armstrong suited up and collected samples very near the lander. And this was the contingency sample just in case they had to scoot right away.
Are there any concerns over possible contamination of Mars by Earth missions?
This is always a concern. The general topic is referred to as planetary protection, which sounds really grandiose, but it’s really about protecting other planetary environments, and protecting the Earth from other planets too. So it’s making sure that when we send spacecraft to Mars we sterilize them as thoroughly as possible before they get there. They will be traveling through a very harsh space environment for months and months, but we know that life is very hardy here on Earth. And we know that certain lifeforms here on Earth could potentially survive on Mars at least below the surface. It would be truly awful if we finally find evidence of life on Mars and it proves to be contamination that we brought there on our spacecraft.
Note: This story will be updated with video.