NASA starts the search for life on Mars

Touchdown: “Hello, world. My first look at my forever home” tweeted Perseverance at 21:01 GMT. © NASA

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’s 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.

You Decide

  1. If you were invited to travel to Mars, would you accept?
  2. How might the discovery of life on Mars affect life on Earth?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are travelling to Mars. Choose five personal possessions to take, and write a paragraph explaining each choice.
  2. Write a short story from the perspective of a native Martian that has encountered Perseverance.

Some People Say...

“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started.”

TS Eliot (1888 – 1965), Anglo-American poet, playwright and essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Astronomers widely agree that the surface of Mars once more closely resembled that of Earth. There have been some significant recent discoveries. In 2008, NASA discovered ice; in 2012, evidence of a consistent water flow; and in 2018, an underground lake. It is now believed that the planet’s present day craters and crevasses once contained lakes and rivers. Around 3.8 billion years ago, an ocean may have covered a third of the planet’s surface.
What do we not know?
There remains disagreement over whether the presence of water on Mars increases the likelihood of life. Water might provide an ideal condition for the development of living organisms. Cosmologist Paul Davies has even claimed that Martian microbes thrown into the Solar System could have originated life on Earth. Others point to the planet’s thin atmosphere, lack of carbonate rocks and the likelihood that it was once even colder than it is now as evidence that it has never been habitable.

Word Watch

Seven minutes of terror
NASA’s nickname for a Mars rover's landing and descent. During this period, the vehicle has to reduce its speed from 20,000 km/h to 1 m/s.
Jubilant
Expressing happiness or triumph, from a Latin word meaning calling or hallooing.
Jezero Crater
A former lake 49 km in diameter, Jezero is named after a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina itself named for a Slavic word meaning ‘lake’.
Microbes
Tiny living organisms. No microbes have previously been discovered outside Earth.
MOXIE
Acronym for Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment. In American English, to have moxie is to have courage, after a 1930s advertising campaign for a soft drink of the same name.
Colonisation
The process of establishing control over territories or people by establishing colonies or settlements in them.
Decompression
A dangerous condition caused by the formation of nitrogen bubbles inside the blood when entering an area of lower pressure. Divers call decompression sickness the bends.
Christopher Columbus
Italian navigator (1451 – 1506) long held to be the first European to reach the Americas. Despite crossing the Atlantic on four separate occasions, Columbus himself believed that he had sailed to the far side of Asia.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott
Royal Navy officer and Antarctic explorer (1868 — 1912). Regarded as a hero during his lifetime, his second expedition to the Antarctic ended with the death of his entire party.

Subjects

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