This Thursday (30), NASA hopes to dispatch yet another of its relentless Martian missions. But this one has a different flavor, in the style “The first year of the rest of our lives”. The Perseverance rover focuses on studying the possibilities of past biological activity on Mars, while paving the way for the future of life on the red planet.
Starting at the beginning: the weather gives good chances (70%) of conditions suitable for the flight of the Atlas 5 rocket, and the window of the day opens at 8.50 am (Brasília time), lasting two hours (you can follow the launch live) on here).
The departure takes place at platform 41 of the Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida (USA), and, if successful, will begin a seven-month interplanetary journey. And the launch takes place in a less festive regime, amid the pandemic of the new coronavirus.
“Unfortunately it was not possible to travel to see,” says Ivair Gontijo, a Brazilian physicist at JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Pasadena, California, who participated in the development of the mission. “Only a very small group that will be working on the launch in Florida. So we are also going to watch from home. ”
If all goes well, the Perseverance jeep, flying inside a capsule, must make its landing attempt in the neighboring world on February 18, 2021. Until then, you won’t have to feel lonely, knowing that you fly next to you, practically on the same trajectory of transfer from Earth to Mars, a spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and another from China – which in itself already gives a measure of how the world is changing.
THE OLD AND THE NEW
Of the three participants in the current journey, taking advantage of the window that opens every 26 months for launches to Mars (due to planetary alignment), NASA is the most consistent and traditional.
To give you an idea of this, in the last 24 years, the American space agency only stopped using the Martian window on two occasions, in 2009 and in 2016. There were altogether 12 launches to Mars in the period, and only 2 missions lost (Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, in 1999). In this century, NASA has yet to know what failure in Martian exploration means.
This contrasts with the efforts of Chinese and Arabs. With the launch of Tianwen-1, China makes its second attempt to reach the red planet – but the first for real. Before that, the Chinese hastily “cooked” a Martian orbiter in 2011, to fly accompanied by the Russian probe Fobos-Grunt. The Russian rocket failed, and the two did not even leave Earth’s orbit.
Nine years later, China is no longer the “hitchhiker” of the Russians and is now carrying out a complete and ambitious mission. Using a Long March 5 rocket, with 100% Chinese technology, the Tianwen-1 spacecraft is a “three in one” project: an orbiter, a landing module and a rover fly together. And don’t hesitate if it becomes the second country in the world to make a successful landing on Mars.
Apart from the Americans, nobody has succeeded so far. NASA may have made it look easy, with its 8 successful landings since 1976 (with just one failure, the 1999 Polar Lander). But nothing could be further from the truth.
So much so that the most that the Soviets achieved during the Cold War was to land once, in 1971, on the Mars 3 mission, and operate the module for 14.5 seconds, before crashing. And the other country to hit the post was the United Kingdom, with the Beagle-2 mission, in 2003. Satellite images showed that the small module even landed properly, but failed to open its solar panels and, therefore, failed to establish communication with the Earth.
And the last failure in a Martian landing was less than four years ago, in October 2016, when the Russian-European module Schiaparelli crashed on the ground due to a software failure. That is, it is not easy, and nobody should be shocked if China fails in this attempt.
Nor should it be shocking if American Perseverance does not end up on Mars. It is true that the Yankee record is excellent, and the same method used to put the new rover on the ground is the same that served its predecessor, the Curiosity jeep, well in 2012. But Americans do not call the process of atmospheric entry and landing “seven minutes of terror” for nothing.
Avoiding this more “crazy” part of the Martian missions, the United Arab Emirates concentrated on sending only one orbiter. Named Hope (or Al Amal), it represents the hope of the young Arab country to place its first landmark on the outskirts of Mars. The mission consists of a Martian meteorological satellite, with three instruments developed in partnership with American universities. But the country’s declared ambitions are enormous: to build and inhabit a city on Mars in 2117.
Madness? They have time there. For now, its first Martian unmanned spacecraft is already on its way, after being launched by a Japanese H-2A rocket, on the 19th.
THE SEARCH FOR LIFE
Both the Chinese and American missions have a stated aim of seeking signs of Martian life. It may seem surprising, but nobody has openly admitted this objective since the Viking probes of the 1970s. This is precisely because that first experiment to search for biological activity produced strange and inconclusive results.
Since then, NASA has decided to address the issue “by the edges”. First, to establish the conditions of the present and the past of Mars, investigating where and when water – an essential component of life – may have flowed there. Then, with the Curiosity jeep, the goal was to detect organic substances – another ingredient required for biology. And now Perseverance (living up to its name, perseverance) goes straight to the point, looking for fossil chemical signs of microbial activity in the Martian past.
For that, he will descend in the Jezero crater, where it is known that water has accumulated in the remote past and that it has the ideal geological characteristics for the possible preservation of ancient signs of life.
The Chinese rover from the Tianwen-1 mission will descend in another region of Mars, Utopia Planitia, previously visited by the American Viking-2.
Investigating the possibilities of life on Mars answer the call of one of the most classic questions to pursue human beings: are we alone in the universe? But, in addition to that, it also addresses practical issues. Something along the lines: what are we ethically allowed to do on the red planet?
It is very different to decide to colonize a lifeless rock or a world with alien biological potential, and finding out if there is or was anything alive there is an essential part of that. Most scientists believe that this cannot be answered definitively without bringing samples from there for study in terrestrial laboratories.
In this sense, Perseverance already brings a sample of the future, collecting rocks and storing them in small sealed tubes, for later dispatch back to Earth (by another automated mission, to be conducted in partnership by Americans and Europeans until the end of this decade. ).
The rover also tests technologies intended for potential use in future astronaut suits and even takes an experiment aimed at producing oxygen from atmospheric Martian carbon dioxide. Robots have little use for oxygen, but future Mars inhabitants will need it a lot.
Finally, Perseverance will also promote a “Santos-Dumont / Wright brothers” moment on Mars, with the test of the first drone to fly through the tenuous atmosphere of that world, the Ingenuity mini-helicopter.
Between investigations of the past and testing of technologies for the future, Perseverance seems to be a turning point in the trajectory of Martian exploration. The purely scientific look begins to give way to initiatives more focused on the subsequent arrival of humans on the red planet – to study and, who knows, to live. Tomorrow starts now.