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Was there life on Mars? Imperial and NASA scientists might soon find out

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Artist's rendering of the Perseverance rover on Mars. It has four wheels and a protruding 'head'

Perseverance will look for traces of life on Mars

Imperial scientists will play a vital role in a new Mars Rover’s quest to find traces of life on Mars.

Professors Sanjeev Gupta and Mark Sephton at Imperial College London, backed by the UK Space Agency, are part of a team working on the new NASA Perseverance rover, which began its seven-month journey from Earth on 30 July 2020 as part of the Mars 2020 mission.

With one carefully chosen sample from Mars, we could discover that the history of life on the Earth is not unique in the Universe. Professor Mark Sephton Department of Earth Science and Engineering

The rover will study the 28-mile wide Jezero Crater, which contains sediments of an ancient river delta, where evidence of past life could be preserved if it ever existed on Mars.

From the crater, Perseverance will select rock and soil samples to be brought back from the Red Planet in the near future as it searches for evidence of carbon and ancient microbial life.

It will also test a method to produce oxygen from the atmosphere, use radar to locate natural resources like subsurface water, deploy advanced zoom cameras to image the landscape in 3D, and measure Mars’ unique weather system that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars with a suite of environmental sensors.

Collecting these samples is crucial to understand what the Martian climate was like early in Mars' history and whether it was habitable for life. Professor Sanjeev Gupta Department of Earth Science and Engineering

Professor Gupta, from Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering, will be studying the ancient river and lake sediments exposed in the crater to reconstruct its evolution. As a mission Long Term Planner, he will work closely with the science team to develop the mission’s strategic vision, and with the engineers in day-to-day rover operations as they search for sample rocks for future return to Earth.

He said: “Collecting these samples is crucial to understand what the Martian climate was like early in Mars' history and whether it was habitable for life. Laboratory analysis of such samples on Earth will enable us search for morphological and chemical signatures of ancient life on Mars and also answer key questions about Mars' evolution.”

Professor Sephton, also from Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and

Image of the Jezero crater, Perseverance's landing site
The Jezero crater, Perseverance's landing site

Engineering, is an astrobiologist who specialises in recognising the organic records of past life in rocks and will help the team select samples for eventual return to Earth.   

He said: “This fantastic opportunity brings some of the finest minds in the world together to solve one of the biggest questions in the Solar System: ‘was there life on Mars?’ 

“With one carefully chosen sample from Mars, we could discover that the history of life on the Earth is not unique in the Universe. The samples we select and return will hopefully help us find out whether there was ever life on the Red Planet.”

Flying high

UK scientists and researchers continue to play an indispensable role in the most impressive international space missions, helping to further our understanding of our extraordinary Solar System. Amanda Solloway UK Minister for Science, Research and Innovation

Perseverance’s onboard instruments will drill seven centimetres down to collect scientifically compelling samples, before placing them in titanium tubes for protection. When the rover reaches a suitable location it will drop the tubes onto the surface of Mars to be collected by a future retrieval mission, which is currently under development.

It also carries the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which marks the first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another planet. Ingenuity will capture colour aerial views of the Perseverance exploration site that will help the team scout for the best locations for the rover to explore.

UK Minister for Science, Research and Innovation Amanda Solloway said: “UK scientists and researchers continue to play an indispensable role in the most impressive international space missions, helping to further our understanding of our extraordinary Solar System.

“The launch of NASA’s Perseverance rover and the UK’s own Sample Fetch Rover vehicle, being developed in Stevenage, represents another critical step in building up our knowledge of life on the Red Planet. I wish the mission every success.”

The helicopter onboard Perseverance, Ingenuity
The Ingenuity helicopter

Launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Perseverance will take seven months to get to Mars, landing in February 2021 in the Jezero crater. It will be in operation for at least 687 days.

All images: NASA/JPL-Caltech

See the press release of this article

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Caroline Brogan

Caroline Brogan
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