Perseverance snaps a selfie with Ingenuity on Mars

Ingenuity helicopter aims to take to the Martian skies

Named after the Roman God of War, Mars is one of our closest neighbours in space, and attempts are being made to see whether it could have harboured life.

The entire surface of this planet is coated in a layer of iron oxide, giving it a rusty tint. The Red Planet boasts a light atmosphere and even has its own pair of polar ice caps, plus a sprinkling of impact craters from asteroids.

Mars is just over half the size of the Earth, and scientists are curious to know whether life could have sprung from its surface at some point in the history of our solar system. Whereas 70 per cent of Earth’s surface is liquid water, Mars is a dusty wasteland, with an atmosphere mostly comprised of CO2.

Perseverance is the latest rover sent to Mars by NASA, designed to explore the planet surface and hopefully find any signs of life, both past and present.

Roving around Mars

Perseverance blasted off from Earth in July 2020, on a journey lasting until February 2021. Owing to the distance between Earth and Mars, manned missions will be unlike anything we’ve seen before, as crews will need to be prepared for a far lengthier period in transit.

Not only that, but Mars’ atmosphere kicks up dust storms, making it important for equipment and astronauts to be able to navigate their way around the planet’s surface without being damaged by the dust.

Luckily, Perseverance is ready for the challenge, and is already getting to work, producing high-resolution images and sound clips of the Martian surface. Just a month after touching down, it has launched another machine, Ingenuity, a helicopter-like device which will carry out the first powered flight in Martian skies.

Ingenuity will try to gauge how machines can fly in the thin Martian atmosphere, doing a series of 20-30 second hops in the air over the course of 30 days. In doing so, it will give scientists invaluable data about how to get around in the Martian skies on future missions.

On February 19th 2021, NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover recorded the sounds of Mars using its SuperCam instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/ISAE-Supaero

Red and lifeless

We think of Mars as barren and lifeless, but it may have actually been one of the few other places in the solar system where life could have existed, aided by the presence of flowing water on the surface. During an era termed the Noachian Period roughly 3.7 to 4 billion years ago, conditions on the Martian surface may have allowed water to flow.

A series of gullies and landmarks which look like the dried-up remnants of miniature streams suggests the Red Planet was practically gushing once upon a time. NASA even confirmed water still flows on Mars, albeit in small amounts.

The real question is: where did the water go? The structure of Mars as a planet may play some role in this. Its magnetic field may have proved too weak to hold an atmosphere, causing much of the water to boil off into space, but may have proved just about strong enough to retain some form of atmosphere.

What Perseverance will intend to do is see whether some form of life may persist to this day. Even if it does prove that life can exist in the most inhospitable of climates, Perseverance will hopefully give us a sense of perspective and a sense of the value of what we have. Life on Earth is held in a delicate balance, and our own actions could easily reduce Earth to yet another lifeless planet if we’re not careful.

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