The latest on Mars

What's Perseverance up to?
09 March 2021

Interview with 

Matt Bothwell, University of Cambridge




Up to Mars now, And the new Rover that’s landed on the surface, Perseverance. What has Perseverance actually done up on Mars, and what’s it about to do. Matt Bothwell from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge spoke to Adam Murphy, as well as guests pharmacist Bahijja Raimi-Abraham and space scientist John Zarnecki, about the latest on the red planet...

Matt - It's been doing a few things. So one of the things that you would expect it to do is do all kinds of tests and calibrations of its systems. So once this thing lands on Mars, that's the end of a very, very long and violent journey, right? So since scientists last kind of tinkered with it, it has traveled hundreds of millions of miles through space, and come in and landed on a planet, starting at tens of thousands of miles an hour, and eventually has come down, resting safely on the floor. There's an enormous amount of checking that scientists need to do to make sure that all the systems and all the components are still working. There's also quite an important kind of software side of things, where there are different software programs that are involved in actually getting to Mars versus being on Mars. And so a big thing that the team has presumably doing right now is switching from those two modes. So going from "I'm traveling to Mars" mode to "I am driving around on Mars" mode.

Adam - And once it starts driving around, what's it going to start doing?

Matt - So, one of the biggest things is it's going to be looking for a nice site for the test flight of Ingenuity. The first helicopter, the first drone on Mars. I guess it's a nice link back to talking about use of drones in photography. There's now going to be a drone on Mars. And one of the things that Perseverance is going to have to do is scout out a nice place for Ingenuity's first flight. And that's going to involve using it's cameras, driving around and looking for a nice flat surface to take this test flight on.

Adam - And what are the other sort of big mission aims of Perseverance then?

Matt - Well, the ultimate mission aim is to look for signs of ancient life on Mars. Mars is one of the best places that we think there might have been life in the past, even though Mars is this dry desert, nowadays. Thousands of millions of years ago, Mars had water on it, it had liquid oceans and lakes and rivers. And given that life emerged on the young Earth in exactly these conditions, it’s a reasonable guess that there might have been life on Mars, billions of years in the past. And so Perseverance's main mission is going to be to look for signs of this ancient life. One thing that's going to do that has never been done before is take samples of the Martian soil and prepare them for return to Earth. So far our missions to Mars have just examined the soil, kind of in-situ, and radioed back to the results. The Perseverance rover is going to dig up some soil samples and then prepare them in a way that in the future and a mission might be able to actually bring them back for Earth examination, which is very exciting.

Adam - With all this. These are some lofty goals. Do you think it's going to meet them? Are you excited to see what comes next?

Matt - Well, I think the question of are we alone in the universe, which is what this is really about, it's a small way of getting at the question of are we alone in the universe? Obviously everyone has their fingers crossed for a positive answer, right? I mean, if Perseverance discovers life outside our planet, it will be one of the most momentous discoveries in the history of the human race. But this question is also very interesting because the results are fascinating, whichever way the answer pans out. If Perseverance gives us the green light and says, it has found evidence of ancient life on Mars, that's fascinating. And then we can all start kind of getting philosophical, and wondering what that life might've been like. But if the answer is that Mars is completely barren and always has been, that's also philosophically interesting. It means our Earth is much, much more special than we might've thought previously. And so that's going to give us a lot to think about as well. And so whatever way the answer pans out, I think we're going to have a lot of thinking to do.

Adam - Bahijja, what's a pharmacist's opinion on a Mars mission. This is very much not your usual wheelhouse.

Bahijja - I am so fascinated by Mars, just by astrophysics, just the world of physics. It's just amazing because , pivoting on what Matt said. If from this mission, we can find out that there's life, or has been life on Mars, there currently is, I don't know, it's just going to be so amazing to even just start expanding one's thoughts in this area.

Adam - John, is there anything else going into space, anything in the space missions that you're excited about coming up?

John - Let me just first say, I mean, it is a fantastic mission, but I've been involved with a mission which landed instruments on the surface of Titan, which is Saturn's largest moon. It took us seven and a half years to get there. So we rather look down on Mars as being, you know, in our backyard and rather easy and local, but joking apart.

Adam - It's just there.

John - It's well, you know, it really is in our backyard. It only takes a few months to get there. And only one probe has landed on the surface of Titan. But you asked me about other missions, I think, what am I getting excited about or interested in? Well, there are other missions at Mars, of course, several, and one from Europe is called TGO, Trace Gas Orbiter. It's actually a collaboration between ESA, European Space agency and the Russians. And that is trying to look for trace gases. That's gases in the atmosphere that exist in tiny concentrations, and in particular methane. So there've been reports over the years, both from space missions and from the ground of small traces of methane. And of course on Earth, one great source of methane is biology, is animals, for example. And so that's one of the reasons why this mission was developed. And this is more sensitive than any of the other missions or ground-based telescopes that have detected methane, or claim to have, and yet in a year or so of operation, it hasn't seen anything at all, despite the fact that it's working very well. So that's a bit of a mystery and, you know, not quite sure where that story is going to go. Otherwise, of course, we've got the James Webb space telescope. In some ways, the successor to the Hubble space telescope that is due for launch later this year. And I think every astronomer, whatever their interest is, is going to be watching that with bated breath.


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