When will life, or signs of life be found somewhere other than Earth? I use the word when because I believe the word if is out of the question. Life is out there. Maybe I will be lucky, and signs of life will be verified in my lifetime.
NASA launched the Mars 2020 mission with rover Perseverance on July 30, 2020, hopefully landing a few days after this column is published, on February 18th. This current Mars exploration rover is equipped to detect signs of life as were previous missions. Even so, it’s a tricky business. Our experience has been from the start one of inconclusive data. Viking landers collected and ran experiments on samples in the 1970s. Results…inconclusive…but maybe. Every lander since has collected data, building a case for life but…inconclusive. It boils down to technology. Even with the best NASA can do in miniaturizing sophisticated analyzers, there is always a missing factor, or two. Samples really need to be brought to Earth for the full treatment.
NASA and the European Union’s European Space Agency (ESA) have teamed up and have a tentative plan to get some Mars dirt and rocks to Earthly labs for testing. NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is the first leg of a multiple-year mission to “get-er-done”. While Perseverance will be examining Mars’ geology, it will also have its own set of analytical instruments to run tests on dirt and rocks. Then it will collect, package and store Mars stuff from the most promising sites. Sometime in 2026 NASA might send a mission to retrieve the samples and get them into Mars orbit. Ideally in the same year the ESA will send a mission to put a rendezvous orbiter in place to pick up the NASA samples, returning them to Earth in 2031. Once on Earth the samples will be analyzed for signs of life.
That’s exciting stuff but there’s more!
Humans are going to Mars. They will need to be self-reliant because supply ships will be 6-8 months away at best. Even with the supplies that will likely be sent prior to human missions, people will need more breathable air than can be carried or stored. That means deriving oxygen from Mars’ predominantly CO2 atmosphere. Perseverance will test such a device, one that can be scaled up to provide the mission team enough oxygen for the long-term.
Drones have become an unbelievable phenomenon, from getting unique vantage point photos to search and rescue operations. Perseverance will test a drone to assess possible utility for Mars exploration and even as a delivery vehicle for samples, tools, whatever. Imagine that, a drone on Mars!
After over half a century of political highs and lows NASA continues its mission. NASA has perseverance.
What’s in the Sky?
February 19; dusk; high in the south: The Moon is with the Pleiades and Mars
February 20; thirty minutes before sunrise; southeast: Jupiter, Mercury, and Saturn form a triangle near the horizon.