As Perseverance Approaches Mars, Scientists Debate Its Sampling Strategy



For anybody invested in NASA’s decades-long efforts to robotically discover Mars, now could be the time for nail-biting. Launched final July and barreling towards the Crimson Planet and Jezero Crater is the area company’s Perseverance rover, cocooned in heat-resistant shielding and set for a terrifying, technically audacious fiery nosedive via the planet’s ambiance on February 18. That ferocious entry will likely be instantly adopted by one thing many think about much more horrifying: the automated decreasing of the robotic to strong floor on a tether from a hovering, rocket-propelled “sky crane” platform—the identical expertise that efficiently introduced Perseverance’s predecessor, the Curiosity rover, to the Martian floor in 2012.

Billed because the largest, heaviest, cleanest and most complex roving robotic geologist ever shot into area, Perseverance is a multitasking extraordinaire.

“The Perseverance rover is a key subsequent step in our exploration of Mars,” says Bruce Jakosky, an eminent planetary scientist on the College of Colorado Boulder who not too long ago chaired a NASA working group tasked with scoping out the way forward for Crimson Planet analysis. Perseverance, with its emphasis on accumulating materials to sometime be returned to Earth, is essential to any such plans.

“Together with the science Perseverance will do on the floor in exploring Jezero Crater, by accumulating samples from key areas on the floor it will likely be step one in returning samples of the Martian floor to the Earth. Evaluation of those samples is anticipated to revolutionize our understanding of Mars, its historical past, and whether or not there might be proof for present-day or previous life,” Jakosky says.

Amongst different key assignments is unleashing a Mars helicopter that reconnoiters the speedy environs round its chosen touchdown web site, an historical lake-delta system which may harbor indicators of fossilized microbial life. Then there’s its goal of working a first-generation machine to transform the carbon dioxide–saturated Martian air into oxygen. If constructed larger, the technological progeny of that pathfinder might assist maintain future human explorers on Mars by actually producing breathable gasoline and rocket propellant alike out of skinny air.

Perseverance’s main specimen-gathering goal is a Herculean process that can rework the rover from a one-off science mission right into a linchpin for many if not all of what’s but to come back in our ongoing relationship with the Crimson Planet. Accumulating and storing treasured samples for eventual return to Earth would be the opening shot in a advanced, multipart and megadollar endeavor referred to as Mars Pattern Return (MSR). If profitable, Perseverance would be the binder that unites a number of generations and subdisciplines of planetary-science planning right into a cohesive, sturdy complete; if not, a lot of the painstakingly constructed edifice of Mars exploration might collapse into break.

As soon as safe-and-sound on the bottom, the car-size rover is to assemble specimens of rock and soil, and maybe shall even siphon up a sip of Martian ambiance. These samples are to be fastidiously positioned in dozens of cigar-size tubes that will likely be hermetically sealed and dropped onto the planet’s floor for later retrieval by further robotic rovers. Perseverance carries 43 pattern tubes; 5 of these are “witness tubes” uncovered to Mars’ surroundings to identify any Earthly contaminants which will seep from the rover throughout pattern assortment. That leaves 38 tubes meant to carry fastidiously chosen parts of Mars for years on finish as they await eventual retrieval.

Perseverance’s prime mission spans one Mars 12 months, which equates to barely lower than two Earth years, though the equipment’s certified lifetime is 1.5 Mars years, or about three Earth years.

Even earlier than the rover is safely down and soiled on Mars, lively dialogue is underway for its eventual departure from Jezero Crater, with tentative plans rising for Perseverance to wheel via tough terrain, drive over the crater rim and snoop round at one other web site inside the adjoining Nili Planum area. As soon as there, the rover might maybe set up a second depot of chosen samples—presuming, in fact, the rover is wholesome, that there are any tubes left over from its Jezero peregrinations, and that mission planners settle for the complication of retrieving samples from an extra far-flung cache web site. This “second depot” idea would maximize the mission’s science return past what is taken into account its minimal, baseline goal for pattern assortment, however it’s removed from assured.

Nevertheless, on condition that the precise assortment and caching of samples happens, the following post-Perseverance steps are comparatively inflexible, involving a number of follow-on spacecraft constructed and despatched to Mars in a partnership between NASA and the European House Company.

Firstly, a Pattern Retrieval Lander mission can be launched in 2026 to plop down on the planet each a Pattern Fetch Rover and a Mars Ascent Automobile (MAV). As soon as unleashed, that speedy go-getter of a rover would decide up pattern tubes and stow them inside a container constructed into the nostril of the MAV for rocketing them off the planet again to orbit. Within the occasion that the fetch rover someway fails, any samples beforehand left on the floor by Perseverance are unlikely to be recoverable. To protect in opposition to this contingency, Perseverance’s planners are contemplating leaving a set of samples with excessive scientific worth aboard the rover; offered the nuclear-powered rover stays wholesome, it’d then chauffeur these notably treasured samples to the MAV.

The ultimate leg of the MSR campaign is to hurl an orbiter to Mars that snares the pristine Mars specimens circling the planet for a rocket journey again to Earth, dropping off the vital cargo within the Utah desert as early as 2031.

The worth tag for this fastidiously choreographed robotic roundtrip was not too long ago pegged by a NASA-established impartial overview board at between $3.eight billion and $4.Four billion – a determine that doesn’t embrace the roughly $2.Four billion already spent on the Perseverance Mars 2020 mission.



To make sure this staggering determine leads to one of the best bang-per-buck, greater than 200 Mars researchers attended a digital technique workshop on January 21 devoted to devising a transparent technique for precisely how Perseverance’s samples must be cached. On one factor, all of them agreed: the high-stakes nature of the multipart MSR program made their discussions pressing and greater than slightly fraught.

Brandi Provider, Mars Pattern Return implementation scientist inside the newly created MSR Marketing campaign Science Workplace at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), stated that growing a coherent plan for pattern caching “represents a vital step in making certain that the operations of the Perseverance rover and the planning for pattern retrieval are optimized to scale back danger and outcome within the supply of the absolute best pattern assortment to Earth.”

Harry McSween, a planetary geoscientist within the College of Tennessee in Knoxville tells Scientific American: “It’s a really advanced system of missions, every one difficult in itself,” he stated, “so, we should cross our fingers.”

However the gamble is worth it, he maintains. Returned samples from the moon, a comet and the solar (within the type of captured photo voltaic wind), McSween says, have already revolutionized scientific understanding of these extraterrestrial objects, and “MSR will nearly actually do the identical factor.” Samples, he provides, are “the present that retains on giving,” pointing to new discoveries which are being made now, greater than a half century after the primary Apollo lunar landings and pattern collections, by making use of new analytical strategies to these fastidiously curated moon rocks.

As distant as the possibility of interplanetary cross-contamination could seem, astrobiologists are eager to keep away from bringing again any probably harmful Martian microbes within the samples. And so, a prerequisite of their final return to Earth will likely be their placement in some kind of quarantine, till via evaluation or sterilization they’re deemed protected to launch to outdoors laboratories.

Work is underway to outline precisely what from a pattern return facility should take to protect in opposition to inadvertent contamination of Earth’s biosphere. For years, and in report after report, the scientific neighborhood has wrestled with questions of how minimalistic such a facility might be, as its value, capabilities and readiness can deeply affect the remainder of the MSR effort. Ideally, the neighborhood of Mars scientists desires as many sample-related investigations as doable to happen in typical analysis labs outdoors of biosafety containment, the place they might seemingly proceed quicker, higher and cheaper.

There may be some examine cash to formulate what will likely be wanted for such a facility, says Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters. A MSR science planning group is growing a working checklist of necessities, primarily to assist scope out prices, he says.

“As you would possibly guess, having samples from Mars that we preserve pristine and contained, whereas enabling implausible science, poses a problem,” Meyer says.


Because the MSR initiative strikes ahead, there are these not in love with the plan.

Fran Bagenal, a professor emeritus and planetary scientist on the College of Colorado Boulder, hungers for different exploration locations inside our photo voltaic system, and worries concerning the price ticket of dashing a specimen from the Crimson Planet again to Earth.

“Slightly than the expense of bringing a single, small pattern again to Earth, the place certainly there are labs that might make extraordinarily exact measurements, I might counsel that it makes extra scientific sense to ship a number of small spacecraft to a variety of areas [on Mars] to ‘scratch and sniff,’” Bagenal says. “This may give a way of the vary of chemical environments. It will additionally enable a extra knowledgeable resolution on the place to gather that one treasured pattern to carry again to Earth.”

Balancing value throughout planetary exploration is important for making certain we acquire a deep and holistic view of the whole photo voltaic system, Bagenal says, which ought to power us to confront the arduous query of whether or not the concentrate on Mars is justified.

“I’m appalled how little we learn about our sister planet Venus which may have beneficial classes for Earth. Speak about world warming!” Bagenal says. “My analysis pursuits are very a lot within the outer photo voltaic system…. I fear that value overruns within the Mars program will delay missions to Uranus or Neptune, [each] solely as soon as explored with Voyager spacecraft flybys in 1986 and 1989 respectively.”

In the meantime, NASA’s longtime dance with distant Mars continues with the company’s Perseverance rover cross-haired on its upcoming plunge to the Crimson Planet.

Evidently, the MSR marketing campaign might be upended by a Perseverance crash touchdown. The previous is peppered with failed spacecraft on the planet, prompting and verifying the credo: “Mars is difficult.”

“I believe within the case of a failed Perseverance mission, MSR must return to the first step and the planning for the retrieval missions would go on pause till there’s one other alternative to gather samples,” responded JPL’s Provider. “We’re presently planning for achievement, although, in order that issues can preserve transferring ahead if all goes as deliberate. Fortunately, we’ll know in only a few days whether or not Perseverance has landed efficiently and is operational on Mars!”


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