On 18 February, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars, lowered gently to the ground by a flying sky crane. Now it will begin its dual mission: picking up and stashing samples of Mars dust and rocks to be brought back to Earth later, and searching for signs of ancient life. It also carries with it several other experiments designed to test technology that could be useful to future Mars exploration.
New Scientist‘s space reporter, Leah Crane, answers all your questions on what’s next for Perseverance.
What happens with the sky crane when it has safely landed Perseverance? In NASA’s animations we see it fly off, but where to?
It flies away from the landing area so that it doesn’t endanger Perseverance when it crashes down on Mars. It ends up smeared across the planet.
After the rover collects samples, will they be picked up some time in the distant future? Is there a way to send them back?
NASA has a mission in the works to go pick up those samples later on and bring them back! That mission is tentatively planned for 2026.
What will be considered a successful finding for this mission?
Perseverance is pretty much certain to make all kinds of interesting discoveries – every rover we’ve landed on Mars does. But what would be most exciting would be a fossilized microbial mat or some other indication that Mars once hosted life.
How certain is it that there won’t be Earth contamination on any samples? Is it relatively easy to tell the difference between earth contaminants and actual Mars life?
Those sample tubes are the cleanest things we’ve ever sent to Mars, much cleaner than just about anything on Earth, precisely because it could be hard to tell the difference between Earth stuff and Mars stuff. Additionally, Perseverance carries 4 “witness tubes” that won’t be used to pick up samples, but as controls for the experiment so we can have a good idea of what sort of contamination we might have sent. Telling actual Mars life from contamination will be crucial when scientists are analysing the samples.
How well equipped is Perseverance to identify and analyse potential ancient alien life that is not “life as we know it”? Is it only looking for things we’d recognise?
Humanity as a whole is not all that well equipped to identify life that is not “as we know it”, even if it’s not ancient! It’s possible Perseverance could recognise patterns that indicate strange and different life, but that is so difficult that it’s unlikely.
What kind of mission would this spark if it found undeniable proof of ancient life?
If Perseverance found proof of ancient life on Mars, I think we would want the next mission to be able to dig deeper and send back lots samples – maybe more of a palaeontology rover than a geology one! And it would definitely spark an immediate boom in Mars missions.
What’s something that would surprise you if discovered in soil samples?
I would be most surprised if Perseverance found living microbes, partially because it’s not equipped to look for them and partially because such a finding is incredibly unlikely given the extreme conditions on the surface of Mars.
Did the Ingenuity helicopter land with Perseverance?
Yes, the helicopter is stored in Perseverance’s belly so the rover can drop it off on the surface.
When will the helicopter take off, and what is its intended research?
It will take about a month for engineers to run all the tests required for Ingenuity to take off and for its solar panels to charge it up. It is a technology demonstration, so it won’t be taking any science measurements – but if it works, future Mars choppers could do all kinds of science and they’ll be able to get around much faster than rovers.
How far will it be able to fly?
Ingenuity is designed to fly up to 50 metres in each 90-second flight, and it could make up to five test flights.
What is this mission testing in regards to oxygen production and storage for future missions?
Perseverance carries the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), which will behave almost like a tree, sucking in carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, splitting the molecules, and exhaling oxygen. But it’s not testing storage, since we already know how to do that – instead it will simply vent the oxygen into the atmosphere.
How come we’ve never sent an astronaut to Mars?
The simple answer is that sending humans into space is much harder than sending robots. Sending robots is hard – only about 40 per cent of the ones we’ve sent to Mars have landed safely. And it gets even harder once you consider all the extra things we’d need to send to keep humans alive, both during the journey and once they land on Mars.
Sign up to our free Launchpad newsletter for a voyage across the galaxy and beyond, every Friday
More on these topics: