A spacecraft is currently hurtling toward Mars at 5,700 mph — preparing to touch down in Jezero crater at 12:55 p.m. on Feb. 18 — and we all should be getting excited.
This is NASA’s most ambitious Mars mission ever, carrying the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter. Seattle-area businesses Aerojet Rocketdyne and First Mode, and scientists at the University of Washington and Western Washington University, helped design and build the spacecraft.
Perseverance will collect samples of Mars rocks to bring back to Earth. Studying those rocks in sophisticated laboratories on this planet is how we can best assess whether they preserve signs of ancient life. This mission is trying to answer one of most profound questions we can ask: “Are we alone in the universe?”
As a team member for Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z science cameras, I am personally most excited to see the stunning, otherworldly vistas from the rover. I anticipate that we will photograph a spectacular landscape cut by ancient rivers and lakes — but if NASA’s previous Mars rover missions have taught me anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
Even though NASA has landed on Mars eight times, every mission made surprising discoveries, from remnants of ancient hot springs explored by Spirit, to the “blueberries” (spheres of iron formed in water) found by Opportunity, to mudstones preserving organic molecules as confirmed by Curiosity. Each rover has upended our understanding of Mars. Who knows what Perseverance might find in Jezero crater?
Aerospace aficionados should get excited about Ingenuity Marscopter, the first powered flight on another planet. Because Mars’ atmosphere is so thin — only 1% of the density of Earth’s — Ingenuity has to be extremely lightweight and efficient. The apple-sized craft weighs only 4 pounds, with two sets of blades measuring 4 feet across. This is a Wright Brothers moment on Mars.
As exciting as this mission is, it may not be obvious why we should care about anything beyond Earth right now. With an ongoing pandemic and people struggling to make ends meet, it might seem insensitive to use government funds to send a robot to Mars. Every publicly funded endeavor should reckon with the question of “should we be spending taxpayer money on this?” — even in the best of times.
For Perseverance, my answer is unequivocally “yes.” This money isn’t launched into space — it invests in people: the majority of spending on any NASA mission goes to those who design, build, test and operate the spacecraft. Those people are distributed across the country, including Washington state. In my lab at WWU, NASA funds pay student salaries and tuition. It provides them a unique pathway to gain skills and experience that — among other things — make them ideal candidates for Washington’s tech and aerospace industries.
In the context of government spending, Perseverance is actually pretty cheap. The $2.7 billion cost of the mission is disbursed over 11 years of development and operation. In 2021, NASA will spend about as much on Perseverance as the Department of Defense will spend on its golf courses. We’ve spent more on COVID-19 relief in the last year than we’ve allocated to NASA in its entire history. It was not a choice between the two. A wealthy nation can simultaneously help its people and invest in pushing the boundaries of knowledge.
Now is an especially important time to take a cosmic perspective. The search for life in the solar system teaches us how precious life really is. Photographs from Mars, some of which capture the Earth in a single pixel, reveal our entire world as a speck — an oasis in a vast, hostile universe. And soon, when we see a helicopter flying through the air of an alien planet, we’ll remember that humans can — and do — achieve great things.
Yes, we have a lot to be excited about.