Humanity has been always fascinated by Mars, also called the Red Planet. Writers and movie makers have in the past allowed their imaginations to run rife while envisioning this planet, H. G. Wells’s classic War of the Worlds or movies like Mars Attacks being a couple of examples. Scientists too have been particularly focused on Mars, though their curiosity has leant towards the utilitarian in recent times as they feel that it is the most suitable candidate amongst the celestial bodies for future colonization by human beings. More and more they have come to the conclusion that, using appropriate technology, Mars would yield resources to make possible humans to live and work on it. For instance, water could be extracted from ground ice, and oxygen generated from the carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere. Through the acquisition of greater data, they have concluded that till 3.5 billion years ago Mars might have been as habitable as Earth, and even today its soil might harbour microbial forms of life! Preoccupation with the planet has induced organizations like NASA to embark on a systematic Mars Exploration Program to acquire scientific information by sending robotic orbiters, landers and mobile laboratories to the Red Planet. The successful touch down of Perseverance, the most-advanced rover NASA has ever sent, is the latest milestone in this continuous endeavour.
Launched on 30th July from NASA’s Cape Canaveral Station, the Perseverance, after travelling 472-million kms, has made a spectacular landing inside the Jezero Crater on Mars, which is a giant, 45 kms wide, basin just north of the Martian equator. Scientists have by now determined that 3.5 billion years ago this crater had its own river delta and was filled with water, and one objective of the rover would be to search for signs of ancient microbial life, which would be a telling indicator of the habitable potential of the planet. The rover would collect samples of soil from Mars to be returned to Earth so that scientists can study them for definitive signs of past life using instruments too large and complex to send to the Red Planet. The Perseverance is empowered to last for at least two years during which it will investigate the rock and sediment of Jezero’s ancient lakebed and river delta to characterize the region’s geology and past climate. This rover, equipped with pioneering technology, is the most sophisticated “robotic geologist” ever made by NASA, and the data and information it will provide during its prolonged quest would be invaluable in preparing scientists for human exploration. NASA has already declared its intentions to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s, and the information gleaned by the Perseverance would lay the groundwork towards attaining that goal.