NASA plans to continue its search for life on Mars, even though the task is not an easy one. The Mars 2020 rover designed and operated by the space agency is set to launch next year in the summer and reach Mars’ surface in February 2021.
The spacecraft will land on the dry planet’s 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater, which scientists believe it housed a lake and river delta in the past, some millions of years ago.
Hunting Ancient Life on Mars
Featuring six wheels, the robot will then explore the region for signs of life. The work will consist of scouring Jezero rocks in incredible detail and utilizing numerous spectrometers to map geochemistry on the structure with precision, Mars 2020 deputy program scientist Katie Stack Morgan said at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
“It’s our understanding of biosignatures in the rock record that it’s that combination — texture, and mapping of composition — that really allows you to build a strong case for a biosignature. So, we are very much hoping that, with our payload, we can make a very strong case that there are biosignatures on the surface of Mars,” Stack Morgan said, who is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
Stack Morgan then handed out fossil stromatolite that developed on Earth to help demonstrate her idea. Stromatolites are mats created by the growth of photosynthetic microbes dubbed cyanobacteria. This growth takes place in separate layers, so mapping organic compounds containing carbon accurately onto the layers in a similar structure from Mars would strongly prove that life existed on the Red Planet.
Mars 2020 will be capable of performing such tasks. The probe’s on-site observations may, however, not be sufficient to determine some researchers believe that life once existed on Mars. Scientists are inherently suspicious, and any confirmation of a potential finding of extraterrestrial life will be severely inspected, as it was the case with the Viking Mars lander observations and analyses of the Martian meteorite ALH84001.
Fully Geared to Find Alien Life
The mission is currently creating accommodations for this kind of skepticism. The central part of Mars 2020 is the gathering and capturing of 20 to 30 dug samples for ultimate return to Earth, where numerous research teams in incredibly advanced laboratories will study the structures.
The collection of those materials will be a partnered effort of NASA and the ESA, with details of the project still being developed, but Earth’s return does appear like it’s going to happen. The rover is not only hunting for alien life, but its analyses could help researchers get a better understanding of how rocky planets develop over time. Mars 2020 is also equipped with tools that should help NASA’s intent to send astronauts on the Red Planet in the 2030s.
The rover is carrying on board a ground-penetrating radar, which will hunt for deposits of subsurface water ice, and sacks of briny liquid. Another tool is a technology demonstration that will create oxygen from the carbon-dioxide filled atmosphere on Mars. Mars 2020 has overall seven science tools and 23 cameras to examine everything it can on the Red Planet and search for life on Mars.