Podcaster: Ken Brandt
Title: Landing in a Lakebed on Mars
Organization: Robeson Planetarium/JPL Solar System Ambassador
The landing site of the Perseverance rover is part of Mars’ watery past, and may hold the signatures of past Martian life. Perseverance lands on Mars February 18.
Bio: Ken Directs the Robeson Planetarium in rural North Carolina. He is also a volunteer in NASA/JPL’s Solar System Ambassador program, which is a national network of passionate volunteers who explain and educate about space exploration for their audiences.
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When you think of Mars, what comes into your mind? Martians, armed with ray guns coming to earth with ill intent? A barren, dry, and cold wasteland? A watery wonderland of rivers, lakes, seas, and rain? With the exception of the armed Martians, you are correct. The question is, when are we talking about? Mars today is desolate, dry, and cold. Bathed in radiation, its surface is sterile. Over the last 58 years of orbital and surface explorations, however, NASA has uncovered a treasure-trove of watery history. Four Billion years ago, Mars was much warmer and wetter, with a thick atmosphere-thick enough to hold down liquid water on its surface.
Perseverance lands on Mars tomorrow. It’s landing ellipse is centered on the floor of Jezero Crater, 31 miles in diameter, and mostly flat. After the impact crater was created, water filled the basin, courtesy of a river that flowed into the crater. Water also flowed out the other side of the crater. The lake was there for a long time, probably many millions of years. We know this because the river dumped its load of sediment into a delta, in places hundreds of feet tall. A geological feature like that requires millions of years to form, and is testament to the long duration of liquid water on Mars.
The big question that Perseverance will try to answer: was water there long enough for life to evolve? Perseverance is looking for fossils, in the same way we might look for fossils along the banks of a river. Perseverance seeks biosignatures in the rocks. A biosignatures is a trace fossil of alteration of the rock that can only occur when it records an interaction with a living thing. Of course finding shells or bones would be ideal, however, that is unlikely. Microorganisms are much more likely, but they too leave telltale hints in the rocks.
This is what Perseverance is looking for.
Additionally, there are 23 cameras and 2 microphones that will enhance the landing and exploration of Mars. These cameras and microphones will also provide a first-ever landing experience, seeing and hearing the landing as it unfolds five days from now.
Perseverance joins an impressive fleet of Mars exploration vehicles, both orbiters and surface vehicles. Last week, both China and the United Arab Emirates joined the Mars exploration club, successfully inserting their spacecraft into orbit around Mars. In May, China will be deploying a lander and rover combo onto Mars’ surface. Hopefully, that will add China to the extremely exclusive roster (so far, USA is the only member) of nations that have successfully landed and driven on Mars.
But what if Perseverance fails? As regards U.S. Mars exploration, all is not lost. Curiosity has been quietly going about its business on Mars, driving over 15 miles in eight and a half years-and counting. It continues to explore, and will do so whether Perseverance survives or not.
Thursday, beginning at Noon, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the Robeson Planetarium, NASA TV, and the Jet Propulsion Lab will be doing a joint live presentation that culminates in the landing of Perseverance on Mars. To register and attend some or all of this historic event, go to https://naturalsciences.org/calendar/event/perseverance-landing-event/ and sign up.
Tomorrow’s podcast details the unique aspects of the Perseverance mission, and the capabilities of the rover, along with the helicopter, Ingenuity.
See you on the plains of Mars!
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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