NASA’s big move to search for life on Mars – and to bring rocks home

This year, NASA is taking the next giant leap in the search for signs of life beyond Earth. On July 30, if the weather in Florida holds, NASA will launch its most sophisticated and ambitious spacecraft to Mars: the aptly named Perseverance rover. This will be the third launch to Mars this month, following the UAE’s Hope and China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft.…

This year, NASA is taking the next giant leap in the search for signs of life beyond Earth.

On July 30, if the weather in Florida holds, NASA will launch its most sophisticated and ambitious spacecraft to Mars: the aptly named Perseverance rover. This will be the third launch to Mars this month, following the UAE’s Hope and China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft. Perseverance will look for signatures of ancient life preserved in Mars rocks. And, for the first time, this rover will collect rock samples that will be brought back to Earth, where they can be scrutinized in laboratories for decades to come.

Mars is one the few destinations in the Solar System that has had conditions suitable for life as we know it. There is a chance that Perseverance will collect the sample from Mars that answers the question: “Are we alone in the universe?” This question is especially relevant right now. During the coronavirus pandemic, the mission has remarkably stayed on track for launch in spite of disruptions and delays, and we have been reminded that life on Earth is vulnerable and precious.

As two experts in planetary science and members of the Perseverance science team, we expect that this mission will be the best chance – within our own lifetimes at least – to create a scientific revolution in astrobiology.

NASA’s Mars 2020 will land in Jezero Crater, pictured here. On ancient Mars, water carved channels and transported sediments to form fans and deltas within lake basins. Green colors indicate detections of carbonate minerals that may have formed in the ancient lake. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Searching for life in Jezero crater

On Feb. 18, 2021, if all goes according to plan, Perseverance will enter the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph, and seven nerve-racking minutes later, will be lowered gently onto the surface by a jetpack. The rover will land in Jezero crater, a site that NASA hopes will provide a window to a time when rain fell and rivers flowed on anc

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