In Depth

Why has Nasa launched a mission to Mars?

The Perseverance rover is looking for evidence of life on the red planet

A six-wheeled exploration buggy called Perseverance is 24-hours into a seven-month voyage to Mars, where it will scour the surface for evidence of alien life.

It blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida yesterday aboard an Atlas V rocket.

“Nasa made this mission one of its absolute priorities when the coronavirus crisis struck, establishing special work practices to ensure Perseverance met its launch deadline,” the BBC reports.

Why is it so important?

When the rover lands on Mars in February next year, “it will use a sophisticated suite of science instruments including 23 cameras to examine the planet’s climate and geology”, says New Scientist. Although the mission is unmanned, Nasa says it will be the next best thing.

“Perseverance will bring all human senses to Mars,” astrophysicist Thomas Zurbuchen said at a recent press conference. “It will sense the air around it, see and scan the horizon, hear the planet with microphones on the surface for the first time, feel it as it picks up samples to cache.”

Its ability to carry out chemical analysis of the dust it finds on the surface will mean it can “even taste it, in a sense”, he added.

The rover will also carry an experimental space helicopter, which will make a 15-minute flight above the surface of the planet.

Where is it going?

After its 60-million mile journey, Perseverance is intended to “touch down in an ancient river delta and former lake on the Martian surface known as the Jezero Crater”, says Sky News.

Covered in rocks and strewn with “sand dunes and depressions”, it will not be the easiest landing site. But Nasa has good reason to take its chances.

“The deposits in the crater are rich in clay minerals which form in the presence of water, meaning life may have once existed there - and such sediments on Earth have been known to store microscopic fossils.”

Is there life on Mars?

The Victorians certainly thought so, but David Bowie seemed less sure.

Most scientists would put Bowie’s question into the past tense, asking not whether there’s life on Mars now, but whether there might have been in the distant past.

“Perseverance will hunt for ‘biosignatures’ of past microbial life,” explains the Daily Mail, seeking out promising rocks and drilling samples from their cores.

“We know that Mars has the ingredients for life,” says New Scientist, “and that long ago it was probably far warmer and wetter than today.”

It may yet be some time before we know for certain, however. Even if we find clues that there might have once been living organisms on Mars, we probably won’t be sure until we can bring those clues back to Earth and examine them in the lab, says Johnson.

“The rock samples will be picked up by another mission in 2026,” says the Daily Mail, and only then will scientists see definitive results.

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