The surface of Mars directly below NASA's Mars Perseverance rover is seen using the Rover Down-Look Camera. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via Reuters
The surface of Mars directly below NASA's Mars Perseverance rover is seen using the Rover Down-Look Camera. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via Reuters

Why the mission to Mars matters

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published Feb 28, 2021

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Cape Town - Since time immemorial explorers and scientists have been wondering whether there’s life on other planets. In the interest of finding an answer to this question, NASA’s Perseverance Rover made history this month by landing with cameras to do exactly that on planet Mars.

Weighing more than a tonne, it landed nearly in the middle of the landing zone inside the 45km Jezero crater north of the planet’s equator, which billions of years ago is believed to have housed a Martian lake bed.

The landing was picture perfect and nerve wrecking as its cameras captured the action from several angles, documenting a complex sequence to slow itself or else crash, erasing years of work in an instant.

As impressive as the landing was some have been asking whether there’s a real need for humans to pursue the space mission.

One South African, Dr Adriana Marais, believes there’s value in the space mission. Marais was chosen from among more than 200 000 applicants to Mars. She then became one of 100 around the globe who was preparing for a trip to Mars. However, the trip by 100 aspirant astronauts was cancelled after the organising company, Mars One, became bankrupt. Mars One was a start-up company that received money from investors to land the first humans on Mars and leave them there to establish a permanent human colony.

This, however, did not stop Marais from pursuing her goal of going beyond. Instead the Mars One project has inspired her to start her own organisation, Proudly Human, with a similar mission in a more sustainable approach. In response to the question about the value of going to Mars and space missions, during an interview with Fast Company (SA) magazine, Maraise indicated the very act of reaching out for something that seems impossible has an effect of moving us forward. This is evident when one looks at the by-products of the space race.

In the movie Hidden Figures, we see the creation of new, cutting-edge technology for the space race, technology that still has many applications to this day. The following are just some of the by-products of the space race:

● Artificial limbs: Nasa led the way in robotics in order to remotely control space vehicles, and this technology has been adapted to create more functionally dynamic artificial limbs.

● Water purifier: Finding ways for astronauts to access a ready supply of drinking water is an ongoing challenge for NASA engineers. Collaborating with commercial companies, they have developed systems for use on the International Space Station that turn waste water from respiration, sweat and urine into drinkable water. The technology is now being utilised in underdeveloped parts of the world where water may be heavily contaminated.

● Satellite TV: Before astronauts went into space, unmanned satellites were sent up on test flights to beam data back to Earth. The technology is now an essential part of our everyday lives, allowing long-distance communication via 200-odd satellites that currently orbit the globe each day.

The drive to explore the universe has been the catalyst for generations of scientists and engineers to push technological boundaries and create an array of new inventions to get us there. Like any new Nasa mission, Perseverance is also a platform for demonstrating some of the most state-of-the-art technology in the solar system.

A quick breakdown of its technology shows us that there will be more innovations.

The one is MOXIE, a small device that seeks to turn the carbon-dioxide heavy Martian atmosphere into usable oxygen through electrolysis.

This has been done before on Earth, but it’s important to prove that it works on Mars if we hope humans can live there one day.

Oxygen production could not only provide a Martian colony with breathable air; it could also be used to generate liquid oxygen for rocket fuel.

MOXIE should have about 10 opportunities to make oxygen during Perseverance’s first two years, during different seasons and times of the day. It will run for about an hour each time, producing 6 to 10g of oxygen per session.

Another significant innovation that comes out of this mission is the 1.8kg helicopter, Ingenuity, that could take the first powered controlled flight ever made on another planet. Ingenuity won’t be critical for exploring Mars, but its success could pave the way for engineers to think about new ways to explore other planets when a rover or lander will not suffice.

These innovations matter, however, neither of those demonstrations will be the marquee moment for the Nasa Perseverance mission. The highlight of the mission, which may take 10 years to realise, will be the return of Martian soil samples to Earth. Perseverance will collect more than 40 samples, most of which will be returned to Earth as part of a joint Nasa-ESA mission.

Nasa officials suggest that this mission could come in either 2026 or 2028, which means the earliest they may be returned to Earth is 2031.

Collecting such samples is no small feat. Robotics company Maxar built the sample handling assembly that controls the drilling mechanism that collects cores of Martian soil from the ground. The company had to build something that worked autonomously, with hardware and electronics that could withstand temperature swings from -73°C at night to more than 20°C during the day.

And most important, it had to build something that could contend with the Martian dust. The mission, called Mars Sample Return, will require two more rocket launches from Earth, slated for 2026 and 2031, and one rocket launch from Mars, which could become the first launch from another planet. If the plan runs smoothly, the mission will provide the first rock samples from another planet – complete with details about when, where and how they were collected.

The mission will culminate with the samples crash-landing on the the Utah Test and Training Range. Scientists will then be able to scour the samples for details about the Red Planet’s climate, geological history and even subtle signs of life.

For now we also have to celebrate the fact that these innovations will work beyond the Mars mission. They will work here on earth to improve robotics, the internet of things and other innovations that will advance our lives.

* Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of Fast Company (SA) magazine.

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