Mars - The Red Planet and Everything Discovered on Its Surface so Far
The planet Mars has always attracted the most attention and curiosity of all the other planets in our Solar System.
Not because it is close to Earth, but because it is pretty interesting, attracting a lot of attention from researchers, space agencies, and ordinary people.
Especially since many until recently believed that there is some kind of, perhaps intelligent, living life on Mars and that the “Martians” never visited or did not visit.
It is even believed that there was once an established Martian civilization because until a billion years ago, there was liquid water and organic compounds on the surface of Mars.
Not only that, but some prominent cosmologists believe that meteors from Mars actually brought life on Earth.
Whether this is true or not, we may find out very soon, especially given the significant advances in science and recent missions to this planet.
Even the most die-hard Nasa stan has to admit the Martian surface is a pretty dry subject.
But what if I told you Nasa’s new Perseverance rover has already made startling discoveries involving a harbor seal, the Wright Brothers airplane, and the merits of rigorous personal hygiene?
Let’s prove how much this dead planet rocks and learn what has been found on Mars so far.
Nasa’s Mars 2020 mission is all about seeking traces of the microbial life scientists think might have existed some three billion years ago when conditions on Mars were probably very similar to those on Earth.
If successful, technical insights gained on this mission will also help pave the way for future manned adventures to the red planet.
At the time of writing, the rover has been on the surface for less than a hundred days. But plenty has been discovered nevertheless.
For one, vital proof-of-concept data was collected from the very landing process itself.
The mission’s all-new Terrain-Relative Navigation used innovative onboard mapping, cross-referencing input from the craft’s onboard cameras to help pinpoint the Perseverance landing zone within a few meters.
No small feat, when even a minor overshoot would have landed the rover in trouble, weeks of hard-driving from where it needs to be.
And this data will prove invaluable to future sorties.
Three types of sensors — thermocouples, heat flux sensors, and pressure transducers — were deployed during entry and landing, collecting data on the temperatures and outside pressure before and after that iconic parachute was deployed.
One potentially crucial discovery was that every last thermocouple survived the landing intact, suggesting heat shield damage was minimal.
And as the thermocouples are by no means mission-critical, it follows that future landers could maybe get by with thinner heat shields, saving all-important weight.
Safely deposited on the Martian surface, Perseverance has since been doing precisely what we’d all be doing in its position — blasting rocks with its excellent space laser.
You’ll have seen in those photos sent back from the red planet, showing that the rover’s new Jezero Crater home is studded with light-colored rocks peering out from a landscape of russet-colored soil.
Well, some of those rocks have been singled out for special attention by arguably the most remarkable human-made device ever sent into space, the Perseverance Super Cam. Super-Cam rocks up to its target stone and fires a tiny pinpoint laser, accurate up to seven meters away.
When that powerful beam strokes the rock, it sends up a brief, super-heated cloud of plasma, comprising free-floating ions and electrons.
Perseverance’s onboard spectrograph reads this short plasma signature and can identify the rock’s chemical composition. Two particular rocks scientists have identified as worthy of the super cam treatment have been nicknamed Máaz and Yeehgo.
They’re not words from the Navajo dialect, by the way, coined by Aaron Yazzie, a Nasa engineer, and proud Navajo nation member.
Anyway, it turns out that Máaz, which means ‘Mars’ and ‘Yeehgo’, meaning ‘diligent’, are basalt-like in composition.
So they’re igneous, as in they’ve come from a volcano, but crucially it seems they were molded into their present shape amid some long-gone watery environment.
Proof, if it were needed, that Mars wasn’t always such a dry topic.
Another noteworthy rock Perseverance has pored over is nicknamed the harbor seal.
Dark and smooth, Nasa believes it was sculpted into a sinuous likeness of that playful marine carnivore by the natural erosion of powerful northwesterly winds.
This finding supports existing weather modeling of the Martian atmosphere. So counts as a valid and valuable data point for researchers. As well as being darn cute.
Super Cam’s super-duper laser doesn’t only furnish Perseverance with visual clues for the mineral composition of rocks.
The very sound of its zapping sci-fi laser also offers sonic clues to the makeup of stones. Indeed, one of the most groundbreaking aspects of this mission so far is that it’s enabled anybody back home on Earth to listen in on the martian soundscape, thanks to Perseverance’s onboard battery of microphones.
In addition to the pew-pew of that laser, an audio track also dropped on Nasa’s Soundcloud of the rover’s heavy metal wheels clanging and banging across the hard-rocking Martian terrain.
Not to mention the eerie ambient susurration of extraterrestrial winds, available to anybody who wants to hear it online.
Even more magical, Perseverance’s marvelous MOXIE unit has performed nothing short of alchemy, transforming base CO2 into life-giving oxygen.
Moxie, which stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment since you ask, is a gold-plated gizmo roughly the size of a car battery.
It works by diffusing atmospheric CO2 through a non-porous disc of yttria-stabilized zirconia (or YSZ), sandwiched between two porous electrodes.
And on April 20, it produced a modest but historic five grams of oxygen.
That works out at around 10 minutes worth of breathable air.
MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world, paving the way for humanity to colonize the universe. It’s also the very first device of its kind to help future missions “live off the land,” harnessing elements of another world’s environment for fuel.
Fancy engineering types know this as ‘in-situ resource utilization.
That means using local C02 to make oxygen, to make rocket propellant then.
Which is a much bigger job than plain old breathable air. In order to create enough fuel to launch, say, four astronauts off the Martian surface,
a future mission would require approximately 15,000 pounds, seven metric tons, rocket fuel, and 25 metric tons of oxygen.
That’s way too much to carry from Earth. By contrast, those four astronauts would only need around one metric tonne between them for breathing.
And Moxie has proved that can undoubtedly be done by a larger descendent unit anyway. A breathtaking historic first. Of course, the most eye-catching wheeze on this mission so far has been the successful deployment of NASA’s $80 million Ingenuity helicopter.
Affectionately named ‘Ginny’ — if you think that’s cute, wait till you learn Perseverance is nicknamed ‘Percy’ — this diminutive chopper only last month cemented its place in the annals of science by performing the first powered flight on another world.
And the very fact it survived the trip at all is a miracle. “If Ingenuity had crashed after the very first flight, we still would have met a couple of huge milestones,” one Nasa technician told fans on Reddit. “Surviving launch, charging while en route, surviving the entry, descent, and landing…
Also, deploying from the rover and surviving the cold Martian night… these are no small tasks.”
Indeed, making an airworthy vehicle that’s dinky enough to be stowed on an interplanetary rover is a fantastic achievement and paves the way for future missions exploring areas unsuitable for rovers.
To this day, engineers are greedily collecting data from this one-of-a-kind thin-air copter to be used in the design of intelligent micro-drones, or drones that fly at high altitudes, for applications here on Earth.
One particularly arresting scientific observation concerned the solar panels mounted near Ginny’s rotor blades.
Engineers spent a long time figuring if there was some way of mitigating the inevitable coating of Mars dust, the panels would attract and losing power.
Like mini windscreen wipers, various solutions were pitched and rejected based on the basis they’d add too much complexity and weight.
But when those dual rotors started spinning, technicians noticed Ginny’s solar output increased by a couple of percentage points.
Engineers have speculated this is because of airflow from the blades’ self-cleaned Ginny’s dusty solar panels. Hygiene matters, even on Mars.
Ginny is also carrying an exceptional payload. A postage-stamp-sized square of fabric that was once part of the Wright Brothers’ historic 1903 flying plane was carefully attached to the craft, a tribute to the real aviation OGs. It’s still up there now.
Before we get carried away with how adorable that is, MiMi Aung, NASA’s Ingenuity program manager, had this to say. “We’ve been thinking so long about having our Wright Brothers moment,” she said modestly.
“We will take a moment to celebrate our success and then take a cue from Orville and Wilbur regarding what to do next.”
So what did the Wright brothers do next? “History shows they got back to work — learning as much as they could about their new aircraft.” Onwards and upwards then. What do you think? Are these breakthroughs worth the insane budget?
And yes, sometimes it is much better to escape for a moment from the reality and everyday life of the Earth, to simply dream of living and conquering another planet.
Who knows, maybe one not-so-distant day, all this will be a reality.