Mars rover landing: How NASA’s ‘most complex’ rover to date will hunt down alien life

NASA's Perseverance rover: Experts discuss Mars landing

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Perseverance is expected to land on Mars tomorrow evening (UK time), targetting a promising site known as Jezero Crater. Scientists believe the impact crater was filled with water some 3.5 billion years ago and that would have made it the perfect place to host simple, microbial life. NASA’s rover will explore the ancient lakebed for at least one Martian year (687 Earth days), collecting and analysing rock and soil samples.

The rover will store some of these samples in protective tubes and deposit them in a geocached location for future retrieval.

NASA and partners hope to recover the samples in the 2030s, allowing scientists to analyse the rocks for evidence of alien life up close.

Professor Caroline Smith, the head of Earth Sciences collections at the Natural History Museum in London, believes there is a wealth of information to learn from Jezero Crater.

Perseverance is the fifth rover NASA has launched to Mars, with the last rover, Curiosity, landing in Gale Crater in 2012.

Professor Smith told “There are so many things we will be able to learn about the Jezero Crater region and Mars’ geological history.

“Perseverance is the most complex and well-equipped rover to date and the amazing instruments on the rover which will be able to provide the most detailed chemical and mineralogical analyses of the Martian rocks so far.”

One of these instruments is the SuperCam – a combined camera, laser and spectrometer.

SuperCam will analyse Martian rocks for signs of organic compounds that could be linked to past life.

According to NASA, the tool can analyse the chemical and mineral makeup of objects as small as a pencil point from up to 20ft away.

Perseverance also comes equipped with SHERLOC or the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals.

Mounted on the rover’s robotic arm, the instrument will scan rocks for organic compounds and minerals that have been altered by water.

SHERLOC will also snap up-close pictures of rock grains and surface textures for scientists to study back on Earth.

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And the experiments do not stop there, because Perseverance comes equipped with tools that could one day aid the human exploration of Mars.

Professor Smith: “Whilst Perseverance’s major scientific role is to look at the rocks and search for signs of ancient life, it also has a very important job in helping plan for future human exploration of the red planet – it has an instrument called MOXIE, which will test whether it is possible to extract oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere.

“The SHERLOC calibration target also includes small pieces of different materials that could be used to make the spacesuits that the astronauts would wear on a Mars mission.

“These will be monitored over the course of the mission to see how they stand up to the rigours of the Martian environment.”

But the rover will first need to land on Mars and that is no easy ordeal.

To date, only about 40 percent of all missions launched to Mars have been successful.

The rover’s landing sequence is so complicated, NASA’s engineers have dubbed it the “seven minutes of terror”.

An 11-minute delay in communications between Earth and Mars means we will not immediately know whether the rover survived the landing unscathed.

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