For a long time the Mars 2020 mission was just that — an unnamed mission to deliver a funky new rover to Mars that had been scheduled for liftoff this year. This is no longer a unnamed mission, with the new perseverance rover to land on Mars in 2021. Its launch is currently scheduled for a window from Jul 17 through to August 5. Its target is Mars’ Jezero Crater, and Perseverance is expected to touch down some time around February 18 2021.
The new rover’s mission is to look for signs of past microbial life and to study Mars’ climate and geology. Life. The search for something like us outside our own planet. This drives so much of our space exploration.
The new rover is the size of domestic sedan, weighing in around 1 metric tonne. Its design shows the ambitions for NASA’s whole Mars program, with Perseverance, managed by JPL, setup with a sophisticated drill, sampling arm, and sample storage setup that will tuck away soil samples for future return to Earth. Just think about that for a second. That is a game changer. The first planned two-way physical movement between our planetary birthplace and the Red Planet. This is only one part of a wider program, with a Lunar mission in 2024 and plans to maintain a continued human presence on the Moon from around 2028.
When we do eventually get our intrepid explorers to Mars, we will need to know the best place to land and set up a base of operations. One of the keys to this will be knowing where to get water — or in the case of conditions on Mars — water ice.
Recent research has indicated that water ice may be as little as 2.5 cm below the surface. All Martian astronauts should be issued with a portable spade!
There is a good reason water ice is under the surface. In the thin Martian atmosphere, even water ice located directly on the surface would evaporate, sublimating directly from solid to vapour.
One of the key considerations for success of any mission to Mars will be the strategic allocation of a wide range of resources. We will need to know exactly what we need to take with us, and exactly what we should expect to harvest from Mars’ surface and atmosphere. This includes not only water, but chemicals that could be used to make rocket fuels (check out Juggling Molecules on Mars, my prior post on Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct concept).
One of the ways we can make this assessment of resources from Earth is by using orbiting satellites already in place around Mars. Two of these, which are proving invaluable, are NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the Mars Odyssey orbiter. Both of these have been used to locate Martian water ice potentially accessible to astronauts. Learning how to detect the presence of this water ice has meant piecing together data from multiple sources so that the temperature of the soil could be used as an indicator of the presence and depth of water. The calibration of the temperature-water relationship was achieved by synthesizing data from physical excavation near the poles by the Phoenix lander and data from studies of impact craters by MRO, where the ice has been exposed by asteroid impacts. The Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera on Mars Odyssey, and its Gamma Ray Spectrometer — designed for water detection — have all been crucial.
So where is the accessible water? At the poles and mid-latitudes.
Any landing will likely be in the northern hemisphere though, since the lower elevation means more atmosphere to cushion any landing. Perhaps in sites such as Arcadia Planitia, which shows promising ice deposits close to the surface.
These are preludes to human exploration of one our nearest solar system neighbours. One of our familiar, well-behaved, and unoccupied planets.
What happens when we reach our first exoplanet? What about one that is tidally locked to its star?
Check out what happens in my SF novel The Tau Ceti Diversion when they touch down to explore the first exoplanet.
With the crew dead, and the starship’s fusion drive held back from a lethal explosion, Karic and the surviving officers reach a habitable planet – the last thing they expected was to find it already occupied . . .