Perseverance: A Glimpse Into the Future

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Issue 7, Volume 111

By Henry Cen 

Perseverance, NASA’s latest Mars rover, took off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 30, 2020. For the past six and a half months, it has been traveling to the red planet. Now, it is less than 100 days away from touching down, with an approximate landing date of February 18, 2021. As the countdown begins, let’s take an in-depth look at the mission and its significance for the future of Mars exploration and colonization.

Perseverance is set to land inside the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater. Scientists believe that the Jezero Crater was home to a lake and a river delta a few billion years ago, which made it a prime water-abundant location for life to have inhabited. NASA hopes to search for any signs of ancient life in the crater to prove that the red planet was able to and can sustain life.

NASA set out on the Perseverance mission with four main objectives in mind: “[to study] Mars’s habitability, [seek] signs of past microbial life, [collect] and [cache] samples, and [prepare] for future human missions.” To accomplish these tasks, Perseverance is outfitted with various onboard instruments.

Assisting Perseverance with searching for life on the barren red planet will be one of its onboard instruments, Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC). SHERLOC is located on Perseverance’s robotic arm and utilizes Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy in order to detect and characterize organic materials and minerals on the red planet. SHERLOC consists of a spectrometer, a device used to separate rays of light, and a 248.6-nm deep ultraviolet laser, which is connected to an auto-focusing and scanning optical system. The laser emits a beam of light onto a selected area (SHERLOC has a restricted detection area of 7x7 mm). This excites the electrons of any compounds or minerals in the area, causing them to emit a wavelength of light, hence why this process is called fluorescence spectroscopy. This “emission wavelength” is then filtered onto SHERLOC’s optical detection system where the emission wavelength and the original wavelength of the laser emitted light beam can be compared, yielding the identity of the compounds and minerals present in the scanned area. Detection of carbon lends support for the presence of organic compounds. For even smaller traces of organic compounds, SHERLOC uses a phenomenon known as Raman scattering, which is when the frequency of a source of light, a laser in this case, is shifted in response to making contact with another compound. This shift in frequency is detected by SHERLOC’s optical system and serves as another indicator of organic substances. Raman scattering has extremely strong detection capabilities, detecting even the smallest traces of a substance.

Luther Beegle, the Principal Investigator for SHERLOC, stated SHERLOC’s objectives: “Key, driving questions are whether Mars is or was ever inhabited, and if not, why not? The SHERLOC investigation will advance the understanding of Martian geologic history and identify its past biologic potential.”

Perseverance will also pioneer many scientific techniques that could play a critical role in the future of Mars exploration. One such technique, the artificial production of oxygen, is essential for humans to gain a foothold into future colonization.

To test the viability of this, Perseverance was also equipped with the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). Michael Hecht, the Principal Investigator for MOXIE, spoke on the possibilities of MOXIE: “When we send humans to Mars, we will want them to return safely, and to do that, they need a rocket to lift off the planet. Liquid oxygen propellant is something we could make there and not have to bring with us. One idea would be to bring an empty oxygen tank and fill it up on Mars.”

Mars’s atmosphere consists of 96 percent carbon dioxide, a toxic gas that humans cannot breathe. For humans to be able to take up permanent residence on the red planet, a sustainable and reliable source of oxygen needs to be established. MOXIE takes in the Mars atmosphere’s CO2 and feeds it to the Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE) within it. The SOXE electrochemically splits the CO2 into O2 and CO. It then checks the purity of the O2 before emitting it, producing breathable oxygen. However, MOXIE is a prototype and is only the size of a small car battery. To sustain future human colonies on Mars, it will need to be scaled up immensely.

Perseverance will also test the viability of employing small drones and helicopters in exploring extraterrestrial planets. On the underbelly of Perseverance is a small helicopter named Ingenuity. Once Perseverance reaches Mars, Ingenuity will take to the Martian skies, becoming the first-ever rotorcraft to do so. The success of this trial could mark the emergence of small rotorcraft in extraterrestrial exploration, being able to navigate the small nooks and crannies that other spacecraft may not be able to reach.

Perseverance will provide data that will be pivotal in Mars exploration. However, humanity is still a bit away from full-scale colonization. While Perseverance hopes to address the issue of oxygen, there are a few more challenges that a settlement on Mars entails.

The most pressing issue would be radiation poisoning. Though scientists suspect that Mars once had a magnetic field similar to that of Earth’s, it has long since been stripped away, leaving the red planet vulnerable to the fury of the Sun. The planet is constantly bombarded with cosmic rays and solar flares, some lethal to human beings. NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft was equipped with a special instrument called the Martian Radiation Experiment, which was able to measure the amount of radiation Mars was receiving. In a period of 18 months, the instrument detected radiation levels 2.5 times higher than what astronauts experience on the International Space Station, 22 milli-rads per day, which works out to 8,000 milli-rads (eight rads) per year.

Some solutions have been proposed, but the most interesting of such belongs to the prospect of genetically modifying astronauts. Permanent residence on Mars would place significant stress on the human body from being in constant contact with radiation, microgravity, toxic air, and many more lethal factors. With the genetic modification industry rapidly innovating, these solutions could be solved through the genetic modification of astronauts. One study has already experimented with inserting tardigrade cells into human cells. Tardigrades are a unique group of microscopic animals that can survive in extremely harsh conditions, such as the vacuum of space. According to geneticist Christopher Mason at Weill Cornell Medicine, the engineered cells exhibited greater resistance to radiation than their normal counterparts. Modifications akin to these may allow humans to handle the struggles of extraterrestrial occupancy.

The prospect of Mars colonization is incredibly nuanced. Every detail of human life on the red planet will have to be worked out down to the traffic lights and bedsheets. Even a cup of coffee will be hard to obtain. Martian soil is covered by a regolith, a blanket of rocky material, which makes it hard for nutrients to linger long enough to grow coffee plants. And not to mention, most of Earth’s crops have adapted over a long period of time to the conditions of Earth’s atmosphere and would likely not be able to tolerate Martian conditions. Mars colonization will be a chance to reinvent human civilization as agriculture, architecture, and industrialization have, except this time, we have the wisdom and knowledge of hindsight. It will be a long and arduous process, but today’s era of technological innovation and investment in curiosity has put us in the best position to make great progress. The Perseverance missions may only be the discovery of wooden clubs, but soon, we’ll make fire and then reinvent the wheel.