could anything possibly live here?
It’s dark. It’s cold.
I’ve brought this gift of chocolate cupcakes.
I don’t think I’ll find anybody to eat them.
from Life on Mars
written and illustrated by Jon Agee
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2017
I’m not that much of a science fiction fan, but a short story by Ray Bradbury, “Dark They Were and Golden Eyed,” has stuck with me all these years. I remember it being about the necessity of accepting change and the inevitability of assimilation. I mention it now because it takes place on Mars.
I grew up when Ray Walston played a wacky Martian neighbor in the sitcom “My Favorite Martian.” The song “Telstar” rocketed to #1 on the music chart in 1962. The Space Race pushed reality toward the boundaries of Science Fiction. And it seemed like the whole human race was obsessed with outer space, space flight, and space travel. Reaching the moon was certainly do-able. Could a trip to Mars be far behind?
Even after the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA continued to do its work, astronauts continued to make discoveries, but it seemed like our heart wasn’t in it. In February 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia broke up as it returned to Earth, killing all seven astronauts on board, NASA suspended space shuttle flights for more than two years while it conducted an investigation. Another successful shuttle flight was completed in 2006, but when the International Space Station was complete in 2011, the shuttle missions ended and funding became harder to get.
But just three months later, November 2011, the Curiosity rover launched its 293 million mile journey to Mars. It landed safely about seven months later.
In 2016, Elon Musk headed his SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station to resupply the astronauts. The world noticed.
Then on Saturday afternoon, May 31, 2020, NASA astronauts launched a commercially built American ship operated by an American crew from American soil. It was the first all-American mission in nine years.
Meanwhile, Curiosity has quietly been exploring the surface of Mars all this time. As of February 21, 2021, Curiosity has been on Mars for 3038 sols, or Martian days (3121 Earth days). Here’s Curiosity’s home page. https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/home/ where you can see what it’s been up to.
The goal for Perseverance, to land in the Jazero Crater, was tricky. It needed to avoid the rocks at the bottom that would surely damage the craft.
Perseverance’s safe and careful perfect landing on Mars last Thursday (February 18, 2021) at 3:55 pm EST, got the ground crew at NASA’s jet propulsion lab cheering.
Scientists think the crater is the site of a lake bed that dried up 3.5 billion years ago. There's a chance that before it dried up, it was home to some form of Martian microbial life. There's also a chance the rover instruments will be able to see a signature of that life in the rocks in the crater, like a fossil.
While NASA’s Insight rover is already probing deep into the surface of Mars, Perseverance will look for those signs of life. It will also collect and bring back rocks and soil with the intention of returning it on another mission. Scientists can study the Martian material with equipment too large and too heavy for easy transport. Perseverance's mission will last about one Martian year, about 687 earth days.
Here’s Perseverance on Mars! https://www.enterpriseai.news/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Perseverance-Mars-rover-NASA_600x.jpg
According to National Geographic and mars.NASA.gov Several spacecraft are already transmitting data from orbit: NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Odyssey. The European Space Agency (ESA) operates Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter. India’s Mars Orbiter Mission is also still orbiting and transmitting information.
The United Arab Emirates launched its probe called Hope on July 20, 2020, from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. Their goal is to provide scientists with a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere. They promise to share the data. As of last week, Hope is on a two-earth-year orbit around Mars.
China’s spacecraft also arrived in Martian orbit last week. It's preparing to send a lander and robotic rover to the surface later this year.
Everyone is working to help us Earthlings learn about the Martian atmosphere, its landscape, seismic activity, how the planet has changed over time and if life has ever existed there.
Maybe we’ll even learn a little more about ourselves along the way.
Here are the first pictures sent back by Perseverance. https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/multimedia/images/ Hover over the image to get a description. Click and see a larger image and the narrative explanation written by NASA.
--stay curious! (and look up)