Writer: Suhani Patel
Editors: Vincent Chang
Artist: Daelah Nicholas
NASA’s Perseverance Rover has made incredible advances for our understanding of space! Launched at 20:55 GMT (15:55 ET) on February 18th, 2021, the Perseverance rover landed on Mars' surface to hunt for signs of past microbial life and give space researchers a better understanding of it. The rover has been collecting samples of rock and soil, encasing them in tubes, and leaving them on the planet's surface to be brought to Earth at a future date. Perseverance will also study the Red Planet's geology and test how astronauts on future Mars missions could produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This means that space researchers are actively trying to figure out a way to allow people to breathe on Mars! Just imagine how many opportunities this amazing endeavor would unlock for us in the future. This oxygen could also be used as a rocket propellant. Currently, Perseverance is focusing its attention on the Jezero Crater, an area that was once flooded with water and was home to an ancient river delta. It will continue to examine this crater for at least one Martian year, which has 687 days.
After a 470 million-kilometer journey from Earth, the spacecraft plowed through the Martian atmosphere. To understand how the rover was able to tolerate the adverse environmental conditions on Mars, we must first take a look at the various elements of the rover. When Perseverance landed, its heat shield had to endure temperatures as high as 2,100 degrees Celsius (3,800 F). When it was about 11 km (7 miles) above the ground, the spacecraft deployed a parachute, slowing the heaviest payload in the history of Mars exploration from a speed of 2,099 km/h (1,304 mph) to about 320 km/h (200 mph). The heat shield subsequently dropped away from the backshell and, for a short time, the rover, which was attached to a decent stage, fell freely towards the ground. Eight retrorockets, which are small auxiliary rockets designed to decelerate the speed of Perseverance once it landed on Mars, fired and, Perseverance was lowered slowly on three nylon ropes. When the rover's wheels touched the ground, the tethers were severed and the descent stage flew to a safe distance.
Jezero's fan-shaped delta is one of the prime targets in the hunt for signs of past life. Perseverance has successfully captured images of the carbonate minerals deposited around the crater's shoreline like the ring in a bathtub. When carbonates precipitate out of the water, they can trap objects, including evidence of life. "We'll be searching for biosignatures - patterns, textures, or substances that require the influence of life to form," says deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan. She and other scientists are relying on Perseverance to provide clues on signs of life. For Earth, a record of our planet's early life can be found in stromatolites, which are rocks originally formed by the growth of layer after layer of bacteria. If similar structures exist on Mars, scientists could combine measurements from different instruments to assess the likelihood of a biological origin!
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