• Reading Level 5

NASA starts the search for life on Mars

Is the Mars story more about psychology than science? It is presented as the ultimate quest for knowledge but many believe it tells us more about our deepest desires and dreams. At 20:43 GMT last night, Perseverance touched down on the surface of Mars. The seven minutes of terror were over. NASA scientists broke into a cheer. A decade of work — and £1.94bn — had proven well spent. The reaction was jubilant. “Congratulations to NASA and everyone whose hard work made Perseverance’s historic landing possible. Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility,” said US President Joe Biden. Perseverance is NASA’s fifth Mars rover. Its primary mission is to scan the Jezero Crater for microbes that would prove that life once existed on Mars. It also aims to lay foundations for future missions. Rock samples will be extracted, sealed in tubes and left on Mars’ surface for eventual collection. MOXIE, a little gold box attached to the rover, will try to produce oxygen from the planet’s carbon dioxide-dominated atmosphere. And a drone named Ingenuity will attempt the first powered flight on another planet. These second objectives might steer the way for return journeys, human expeditions – and even eventual colonisation. The key word here is “might”. The Soviet Union landed the first spacecraft on Mars in 1971, followed by NASA two years later. Yet progress has been slow. Much about the Red Planet still remains a mystery. Some question the scientific value of going to Mars at all. Biochemists estimate that Earth contains more unknown medicines than stars in the universe, waiting to be discovered. In contrast, the chance of anything useful coming from Mars is vanishingly small. It is a desert of red dust, colder than the Antarctic and emptier than the Sahara. It is also dangerous. According to Martin Hanlon, “A naked astronaut would simultaneously freeze, suffocate and suffer fatal decompression.” Why, then, do we continue to dream of a Martian future? The answer might be less about science and more about human nature. From Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Bahamas in 1492 to Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed expedition to the Antarctic in 1912, human societies have long held explorers as heroes. Now that the land on earth has been charted, space offers the last frontier for such triumphant voyages. And Mars has long blazed a trail across human imagination. The 19th-Century astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli believed that the planet was crisscrossed by canals, which some took as evidence of a Martian society parallel to our own. Science fiction, from HG Wells’ novel War of the Worlds (1897) to the 2015 blockbuster The Martian, set Mars’ fictional role as a mirror to our planet. Perseverance’s mission might owe as much to these dreams as it does to science. Is the Mars expedition more about psychology than science? Operation Marsshot Absolutely, claim some. Even if Perseverance is a complete success, the information it advances will only be of limited use to humanity. Our missions to Mars are instead largely the result of the Red Planet’s prominence in culture, and a desire to rekindle the excitement of a lost, heroic age of exploration. Absolutely not, counter others. NASA would not spend many years, and millions of dollars, on a purely symbolic venture. The purpose of science is to answer questions about the nature of the universe. Regardless of whether Perseverance finds evidence of life, it will advance our knowledge. In that, it is undeniably a scientific mission. KeywordsMoxie - Short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment.

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