The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is landing today in Jezero crater, and among those helping NASA determine if the Red Planet ever supported life are UNLV geoscience professors Libby Hausrath and Arya Udry.
Here, Udry offers some background the landing and the UNLV involvement in this mission.
About Mars 2020
The Perseverance rover will be landing in Jezero crater Thursday, February 18, 2021 at approximately 12:55 p.m. PT. It launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on July 30, 2020. Its mission duration is one Mars year, or approximately 687 Earth days. Percy, as the rover is nicknamed, also contains a small helicopter called Ingenuity.
Mars 2020 has four main goals:
- Determine if Mars Ever Supported Life
- Understand the Processes and History of Climate on Mars
- Understand the Origin and Evolution of Mars as a Geologic System
- Prepare for Human Exploration
The Landing Site
Jezero crater, its landing site, is 28 miles (45 kilometers) wide, and is located on the western edge of a flat plain called Isidis Planitia, which lies just north of the Martian equator. Jezero crater will help us understand the story of the wet past of Mars. This crater is about 3.7 Ga and is home to a large delta. On Earth, a delta contains a large amount of organics, which we hope to find.
We also hope to find possible biosignatures, such as a chemical compound, isotope, or cellular component that would indicate the presence of a biological process indicative of life. Jezero crater contains igneous and sedimentary rocks, such as limestone and analyses of rocks and minerals at this location will help answer the main goals of this mission.
The Rover Instruments
The rover contains seven scientific instruments (see Mars 2020 instrument image) that have different functions, including
- analyzing mineralogy and compositions of rocks and soils
- detecting organics
- taking pictures at different wavelengths
- measuring the weather
- measuring the subsurface layers using radar
- producing oxygen from martian CO2 — the martian atmosphere contains 96% of CO2).
This last one will be conducted by the instrument MOXIE and will let us know how efficiently we can produce oxygen for future human missions. The produced oxygen would be used for humans to launch from Mars and to use for breathing.
One unique characteristic of Mars 2020 is that it will sample the martian surface and is part of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) Campaign that will, for the first time, bring back samples to Earth in 2031. This campaign involves many steps. Several researchers at UNLV will apply to get these samples, but obtaining these samples will be competitive.
The 7 Minutes of Terror
Perseverance landing involves different steps happening during seven minutes. The same concept for landing was used for the MSL Curiosity rover, which landed in Gale crater on August 6, 2012 (see attached image).
Note that although it will land at 12:55 p.m. PT, there is a 7- to 20-minute delay of communication between Earth and Mars.
Both geoscience professor Libby Hausrath and I are members of the Mars 2020 science team. Libby is a Returned Sample Science (RSS) Participating Scientist and has been since October 2019. She will help select samples to be returned to Earth from Mars, and as a geochemist and astrobiologist, she will help the team in looking for signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past.
I have been a Participating Scientist (PS) since November 2020. My goal is to help distinguish igneous (magmatic = formed from cooling of magma) versus sedimentary rocks, which is not necessarily easy, and constrain the link of the different igneous rocks or compositions analyzed in Jezero crater and their link to all the other martian igneous lithologies, such as meteorites — my true area of expertise.
In addition, both Libby and I will conduct science operation roles for the mission. Some of these science roles include processing data that is sent back daily from the rover, deciding what tasks Percy (the rover’s nickname) needs to conduct on a daily or weekly basis, and help write reports on the collected samples.
Libby will start helping soon with science operations, and since I have only been included in the mission recently, I still need to be trained (although I hope to help the RSS group soon as well).
More info: Watch the NASA press conference about searching for life on Mars, featuring UNLV's Libby Hausrath at the 36:30 mark.