Life on Mars: Perseverance will land in crater where life ‘would have lived’ if it started

NASA discuss the Perseverance Rover’s trip to Mars

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Perseverance is scheduled to touch down in Jezero on Thursday by 8.55pm GMT, after a gruelling seven-month trip through space. The NASA rover will plunge through the planet’s atmosphere at speeds of 12,000mph, before being gently lowered into the impact crater by the mission’s Skycrane platform. Jezero Crater sits in the eastern half of the planet, within a region known as Isidis Planitia.

This flat plane itself is found within a 750-mile-wide (1,200km) basin scientists believe was created 4 billion years ago when a comet or asteroid struck the planet.

But the Mars rover has not travelled nearly 300 million miles through the vacuum of space for a spot of sight-seeing.

Instead, NASA’s scientists have picked Jezero because it is believed to have once been filled with water.

And if water – the building block of life – was once present in the crater, then it stands to reason alien life may have been present there as well.

Professor Caroline Smith of the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London, believes Perseverance is the perfect mission to explore Jezero – or rather what lurks beneath – for evidence of fossilised ancient life.

In particular, Professor Smith told the rover’s instruments and cameras provide the right tools to study the textures and features of Martian rock the rover will encounter.

Perhaps even more importantly, the rover’s SuperCam tool will use lasers and spectrometers to look for chemical biosignatures indicative of past life.

Professor Smith, who is the head of Earth sciences collections at the NHM, is also a member of the Perseverance science team and will be studying the various rocks found in the Martian crater.

The rocks are the right type to preserve the fossil evidence of that life

Professor Caroline Smith, Natural History Museum

The expert said: “The landing site has been specifically chosen as it had the right environment for life to start, the evidence suggests that there was a lake there at the time where Mars was warm and wet between about 3.5 and 4 billion years ago and so if life started on Mars, this is the sort of place where it would have lived and the rocks are the right type to preserve the fossil evidence of that life.”

To date, NASA has launched and landed four Martian rovers: Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, and Curiosity.

Of the four, Curiosity, which landed in 2012, is the only one still exploring the Red Planet.

Perseverance was based on Curiosity’s six-wheeled design, although improved in virtually every single way.

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Professor Smith said: “The Perseverance rover also has two pieces of technology that have not been to Mars before – one is the Ingenuity helicopter, the first time a helicopter has been sent to another planet.

“The second is the capability to drill into interesting rock samples and carefully put these samples into special containers within the rover.

“It is planned that these samples would then be collected by a European rover in the late 2020s and returned to Earth in the early 2030s.

“This is known as the Mars Sample Return Campaign and is an international effort – NASA’s Perseverance rover is the first mission of this challenging but very exciting campaign.”

NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars in animation

It is going to take a while before the Mars Sample Return Campaign truly kicks off but the scientific community is thrilled about the possibilities that lay ahead.

NASA was given the green light to go ahead with the mission last year and the campaign was welcomed by an independent review.

NASA will partner with the European space agency to retrieve the world’s first-ever pristine samples of Martian rock, straight from the source.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who stepped down from his role on January 20 this year, said: “We know there are challenges ahead, but that’s why we look closely at these architectures. And that’s why in the end, we achieve the big accomplishments.”

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