It’s been a busy few weeks for Mars exploration. The Hope orbiter, launched by the United Arab Emirates, entered orbit on Feb. 9. It took its first image of Mars just as the Chinese Tainwen-1 orbiter-lander combo arrived at the red planet on Feb. 10.
And Thursday, Feb. 18, at 1:55 p.m. MST, NASA’s Perseverance Rover is scheduled to land at Jezero Crater. If you’d like to watch the landing live, join Westminster College, Weber State University and the Ott Planetarium for a Watch Party at tinyurl.com/mars2021. We’ll be viewing NASA TV and have experts on hand to talk about the latest mission to Mars.
It’s this type of stuff that got me interested in science in the first place. My childhood imagination was fueled by Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles.” These tales imagined a nearly dead planet haunted by the remnants of an ancient civilization. Such notions were first brought into the popular imagination by Percival Lowell and his description of canals on the surface of Mars. Observing from the high elevations and dark skies near Flagstaff, Arizona, Lowell used one of the largest telescopes of the day to observe Mars in unprecedented detail. While some of the features he observed did, in fact, exist, he may have let his imagination run a bit wild, describing a dying civilization that harvested water from Mars’ icecaps and delivered it to the thirsty equatorial cities.
Though Lowell’s canals were never corroborated by other Earth-based observers, the idea of Mars as a living planet persisted, especially in popular culture. Even in scientific circles, you can find peer-reviewed articles about the potential for Martian vegetation as late as 1967.
Just a few years later, the first orbiting probes returned images of Mars that shattered any notion of a living planet. The Mariner spacecraft sent back images of a cratered, desiccated surface devoid of any evidence of life, let alone a global civilization.
That didn’t stop NASA from sending missions to the surface to check more closely. In 1976, NASA landed the Viking probes at two separate locations on the planet. They both contained crude instrumentation to measure the presence of organics in the surface soil and other experiments to detect evidence of microscopic life on Mars. While these missions also sampled the atmosphere and took years of detailed weather observations, their search for life was largely inconclusive. After Viking, NASA didn’t return to the surface of Mars for more than 20 years.
This delay was fortuitous for me, because I can now tick off the milestones in my career as a planetary scientist by the missions that NASA has landed on Mars since. Pathfinder, a microwave-sized remote-controlled vehicle, landed in 1997 while I was an undergraduate astronomy student. Later, while I analyzed weather data from the Viking landers, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed just as I started my first postdoc at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We had lobbied to have these rovers outfitted with weather stations similar to the Viking landers, but since these experimental robots were slated to last for a mere 90 days, it was not deemed worth the expense.
As it happened, both missions lasted well beyond 90 days. Opportunity functioned in some capacity for nearly 15 years. To this day, I dream of the weather data I could have been studying!
About a decade ago, just as I earned tenure at Weber State, Mars Curiosity landed in an ancient lakebed on Mars. This has been the most capable rover on the surface to date, and it has found evidence not only for past water on the surface of Mars, but evidence that such surface water might have lasted for thousands or even millions of years, suggesting that Mars was more Earth-like in the past.
Tomorrow, an even more capable rover will land in an ancient crater lake on Mars. Much like Curiosity, it will sample and analyze the surface. But it will also collect specimens for a later sample return mission, allowing more detailed study in laboratories on Earth.
Did I mention it also has a helicopter? For the first time, NASA is testing an autonomous drone called Ingenuity that will be able to hop from place to place on the surface. While this will help the rover scout locations for further analysis, it’s also just cool. Who doesn’t want to be the first to fly a helicopter on Mars?
If you also think this is cool, join us at the Watch Party!