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Mission to the Red Planet from NASA in Alabama

Right now, NASA’s persistent rover is flying through space toward a landing on Mars, and no one is looking closer than Dr. Caleb Fassett from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Fassett wrote the scientific paper almost 20 years ago that gave persistence its destination.

Fassett’s research found evidence that the crater – hence the name Jezero Crater – once held a lake and has a good chance of keeping signs of ancient life on the Red Planet. NASA has bet on the $ 3 billion mission cost that Fassett and the scientists who share his opinion are right. And NASA set up ante. For the first time, a rover will try to send samples from the planet back to Earth.

“This particular place on Mars was something I noticed in the low-resolution data in 2003, 2004,”

; Fassett said last week. “In those data, it was really clear that there were these valleys in this crater.” What Fassett saw in the images from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which is still in Mars orbit, were signs of sediment deposits on one side of the crater and “an outlet” on the other. “To have an exit shape, you have to fill the whole (crater) up and have it flow,” Fassett said. “It basically requires the existence of a lake.”

“It was exciting when I first saw it,” Fassett said. “Almost chilled since.”

The place of persistence

This map shows regions in and around the Craters on Mars, the site of NASA’s persistent rover. The green circle represents the rover landing ellipse. Jezero held a lake and river delta a billion years ago; scientists want to capture rock samples in these regions that may contain evidence of ancient microscopic life, which will be returned to Earth by a future mission for extensive study.

Fassett and colleagues also discovered carbonate in the crater, a mineral that seeks to form “relatively moderate conditions.” “A lot of carbonates on Earth, the reason why they (shapes) are due to organisms,” Fassett said. “You can also make them precipitate inorganically without biology at all, and that could very well happen with those on Mars.”

Scientists have seen this before. The carbon was found in a rock sample from a Martian meteorite that struck Earth, Fassett said, “and that was one of the things that started re-invading the Mars program in the 1980s because people were arguing it was biology.”

Scientists do not think so now, he said, and Fassett believes finding evidence of life on Mars next year is “impossible.” Rover is “very capable,” he said, “but we have a difficult time on Earth to identify the signatures of life on the 3 million-year-old rocks. You’re going to be very lucky, and people are going to debate about “In the literature for decades. So, the idea that we’re going to send a robot that will solve this problem I think is actually unlikely.”

This is why NASA is looking at the big step of “returning samples” to Earth. “Scientists are skeptical,” Fassett said, “and if we convince scientists, they will be (with) returned samples. I could be wrong. There could be a fossil … I just do not think it is very likely.”

The plan is that if Perseverance finds “interesting specimens”, they will be collected and stored in the rover until a Mars Navigation Vehicle arrives later in the 2020s.

NASA Mars Event Vehicle

his illustration shows a concept of how NASA’s Ascent Mars Vehicle, carrying tubes containing rock and soil samples, could be launched from the surface of Mars in one step of the return mission of the Mars sample.

The return mission will be a partnership with the European Space Agency. It involves a “snatch rover” to land on Mars and take samples by perseverance and then transfer them to a “return” rocket that will launch them into Mars orbit. Another spacecraft in orbit will collect samples and return them to Earth.

All of this will be expensive, complicated, and time consuming, but it will be billions of dollars cheaper, much faster, and less complicated than the first human flight to the planet. And it can answer the fundamental question of life beyond Earth. “We have not found life anywhere else in the Universe except Earth,” Fassett said, “so the first time we will have to be very aware to make a case for it. This would be a discovery that changes paradigms.” .

The discovery of Fassett and the long wait to try it is part of the history of space exploration. “One of the things you learn when exploring other planets is the possibility that your findings will be difficult to further test,” he said. “There was no guarantee when I was working on this in 2004, 2005 that we would ever go to this place on Mars. Mars has the land of all the continents of the Earth together. So chances are you just choose one particular place and that is where you are going to go, you should get pretty lucky to follow your observations to get there.

Dr.  Caleb Fassett

Dr. Caleb Fassett is a planetary scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Originally from Maryland, Dr. Fassett earned his BS from Williams College in 2002, and MS and PhD from Brown University in 2005 and 2008, respectively.

“It’s not just patience,” he said. “Alsoshte also luck that allows us to push the envelope in this particular place.”

Would he like to go to Mars to see for himself? “I think given the opportunity, I probably will,” Fassett said. “I’m very risk averse, so I do not know if I’m the guy who would be your first choice as an astronaut. I think the reason we take the people we take is a certain tolerance for good risk. -selected ”.

“I really like the fact that we can build these robots to be our explorers in the far side of the universe, without having to be there to breathe and be fed and come back, hopefully,” he said. “So yes, I hope 50 years from now people are making space travel more routinely, but I personally will not go there.”

“Maybe,” he added.

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