Happy “Marsniversary”, Perseverance! Today marks a year since NASA’s last rover roamed the crimson dunes of Mars. And the least we can say is that he hasn’t been idle; Along with its lifelong sidekick, the Ingenuity helicopter, the machine has never ceased to delight NASA engineers. We therefore invite you to mark the occasion with a look back at this first year of grandiose exploration.
On February 18, 2021, the rover finally broke through the atmosphere of the Red Planet, completing a journey of several hundred million kilometers to its final resting place. The beginning of a long adventure which started in a way that was eventful to say the least.
The descent into the Martian atmosphere was relatively short, but it was also a real torture for the engineers. Indeed, it is a critical moment during which the seekers are completely helpless; Because of the several-minute delay required to transmit a signal at that distance, these highly trained specialists were relegated to mere spectators during what they called “seven minutes of terror”.
More than enough time to bite your nails until you bleed; but very fortunately, the new darling of astronomers landed safely in the crater of Jezero. A moment of absolute ecstasy for NASA, and the start of a formidable adventure that has fascinated us now for a year to the day.
In search of life, but not only
Along its journey, Perseverance seeks to complete several objectives, all of which require in-depth investigation by this Martian Sherlock Holmes. First of all, he constantly studies the Martian climate. This requires atmospheric samples, but also, and above all, geological ones; in climatology, rocks can sometimes serve as veritable climatic archives which make it possible to retrace the history of a celestial body.
These samples will be a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by working on its second objective: to characterize the Martian geology, which is intimately linked to its climate. Here, the objective is to find traces of ancient geological processes that have changed the face of Mars during its history: large-scale movements, volcanic eruptions, liquid flows, and so on. Each sample contains a piece of this immense puzzle, and it is therefore a long-term job. But the game is worth the effort, because it is also a way to go back to the origins of the planet.
All of this information will also serve as part of Perseverance’s main goal: to identify biosignatures that might correspond to the presence of past microbial life. It is precisely for this reason that NASA chose to deploy the rover in the Jezero Crater, near an ancient dry delta, where the rocks are therefore significantly more likely to contain traces of past life – assuming that there was one day.
But the geological and climatic readings of the machine are not only used to feed fundamental research work. They also play a very concrete role in the preparation of future human expeditions. As things stand, most institutions estimate that this objective will be achievable as early as the 2030s. in energy. To prepare the ground, Perseverence will therefore test many concepts that could one day be used to settle on Mars.
A first year on the wheel hats
Since his arrival, he has already traveled more than three kilometers in total. This mobility allowed him to carry out several remarkable works over such a short period. The machine has already collected more than 50 GB of scientific data and captured more than 100,000 images of the Red Planet. Some are even stunningly beautiful, and are therefore just as popular with the public as with researchers.
The other great satisfaction of the researchers is that the famous drill works perfectly, except for a small fright during the first sampling. Since it was finally validated in September 2021, Perseverance has already managed to collect seven in total.
The tubes themselves won’t be brought back to Earth for years. But luckily, Perseverance has a number of instruments that have extracted some crucial data from the photos and the surface; and these have already produced decisive results. This is what happened last October, when the rover provided irrefutable proof that the Jezero crater is indeed an ancient dry lake.
To carry out these crucial missions, this interplanetary Sherlock Holmes was able to count on a first-rate assistant: a small helicopter baptized not Watson, but Ingenuity. One of the first scientific exploits of the rover was to deploy its little flying brother and confirm its ability to evolve in the Martian atmosphere.
He thus inherited a pioneer status; indeed, it is the very first aircraft of this type to take off on another planet. It was already a small achievement in itself, and NASA did not expect much more; Originally, the machine was supposed to perform five test flights over a period of… barely 30 days. One year and nineteen flights later, we can say that this little fanatic has exceeded all the hopes of its designers. It rides like a charm and continues to do a great service for its wheeled sidekick.
And now ?
Perseverance is now preparing to retrace its steps to take the route of the main scientific attraction of the mission: an ancient dry delta on the western rim of the crater. These are places on Earth teeming with life, and researchers are therefore hopeful of finding carbonaceous molecules typical of life as we know it on Earth; if there are indeed somewhere on Mars, then this place is among the most promising candidates.
The rover will therefore begin a new journey of more than 2.5 kilometers which should bring it to this famous delta next May or June. To make his job easier, he can count on his sidekick Ingenuity. Indeed, despite NASA’s best planning efforts, Perseverance is not immune to unpleasant surprises; if a single vulgar rut goes unnoticed in the chaotic landscape of Mars, the rover could find itself irreparably stuck, thus signing the death warrant of the mission.
To avoid this potential heartbreak, the small helicopter will be a partner of choice. As long as he continues to impress the engineers by pushing his limits, he can play a scout role and potentially save the life of the rover. Not bad for a proof of concept that was supposed to last less than a month!
How long will the mission last?
At the end of this oh so perilous journey, Perseverance will begin a long series of samples at various strategic points in the area; a task that should occupy him for several months. He will then come to the end of his initial mission, which is supposed to last two years.
But the rover may not have said its last word, because its nuclear reactor should allow it to operate another twelve years. And knowing the immense value of these machines, there is no question of leaving Perseverance abandoned if it still has some under the hood. As long as the rest of the equipment holds up, it will therefore continue to take samples in the area until NASA deems it has had enough.
The rest will depend on NASA. Will he venture to a whole new area? Will he stay there until his last breath? Nothing is carved in stone yet. And rather than drawing plans on the… red planet, we can already be satisfied with this superb first year and cross our fingers that the second will be at least as productive.
In the meantime, failing to be able to blow out a candle with the rover, NASA will still organize a small birthday party for it. Tonight at 10 p.m. the agency will devote a long show to the rover on its YouTube channel (in English, presumably with live subtitles). A good opportunity to have fun sumptuous imagesto learn some additional anecdotes on the machine nearprestigious speakersand even to interrogate them during a squestion/answer session.