For the second time in ten years, NASA has done the almost-impossibly-difficult and made it look easy:
Since the Curiosity rover landed in 2012, it’s been the vanguard of Martian exploration. Now it has a bigger and even more capable companion, Perseverance, which touched down on the red planet on February 18.
Like Curiosity, Perseverance was deployed by the astounding “skycrane” system. The capsule aerobrakes from interplanetary velocity, deploys a supersonic parachute to slow down further, then hovers on rocket jets and lowers the rover to the surface on a cable – all coordinated autonomously by smart software, while mission control watches from across a gap of eleven light-minutes. I still can’t believe anyone dreamed this up, let alone that it actually worked – twice!
Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater, a site that was once a river delta on the shore of an ancient lake. Its mission is to search for signs of life that may have flourished on Mars in its warmer and wetter past. Among other things, it will take rock and soil samples that NASA plans to collect and return to Earth in a future mission. It’s also carrying an experimental technology to produce oxygen on Mars, which could be used by future expeditions to make breathable air for human explorers or manufacture rocket fuel for liftoff from the surface.
Although its mission has just begun, it’s already accomplished a slew of firsts. Most spectacular, the skycrane system carried cameras that sent back the first video of an emissary of humanity landing on another planet:
This short video, like the 1969 broadcast of the moon landing, is a milestone in human history. We’re immensely privileged to live in an era when we can witness it.
Perseverance also has a microphone, which made possible another first – the first audio recorded from the surface of another world. It’s the passing whisper of a Martian breeze:
Last but not least, the rover is carrying a small drone helicopter, Ingenuity, which will test the feasibility of flight in Mars’ tenuous atmosphere.
So far, all five rovers that successfully reached Mars’ surface have been sent by the United States. But no world should ever be the property of a single person, company or nation, which is why we should all be happy that the study of Mars is a truly multinational project. In orbit around Mars right now, there are three satellites sent by NASA, two by the European Space Agency (one in collaboration with Russia), and one by India. The red planet also has two new brand-new satellites, which were sent from Earth in the same launch window as Perseverance: the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, and China’s Tianwen-1, which will attempt to deploy a lander and a rover of its own this summer.
If there has to be competition between nations, this is the best kind. It isn’t a quest for riches or power or land – for, at present, there’s nothing Mars has that we want – but a peaceful space race in the name of science. There’s national pride in the mix, of course, and leaders who want to prove themselves on the world stage. But for the most part, there’s nothing at stake except a collective wish to better understand our sibling worlds in the solar system.
We’ve wondered about Mars since the childhood of our species, when it was only a distant red gleam in the night sky. For the sake of that wonder, we did this. We recruited the brightest minds and the most advanced technology we possess. We peered through telescopes, computed orbits, mapped the surface, built rockets and satellites and landers. Each was a slightly more ambitious step upward, each one building on the last, extending our reach… until now, when anyone with an internet connection can virtually walk the surface of another planet.
Those ancestors who first made up stories about that red twinkle – what would they think, if we could tell them what we’ve achieved?
I like to think that the philosophers, the poets, the early scientists would be overjoyed. And as for those imagined themselves to be masters of the universe – the conquering warriors, the resplendent emperors, the haughty clerics – would it not humble them? Would it not expose their arrogance and the smallness of their conceits, if they knew that one day humanity would reach a hand into the sky?
This is the value that space exploration always has, even beyond the benefits of improved knowledge. It clearly shows us our place in the universe, and in so doing, it places all of humanity on the same plane. It lifts up the lowly and brings the mighty down to earth. It exposes the meanness and pettiness of the reasons we make up to divide ourselves from each other. In the diamond light of other worlds, those artificial barriers of prejudice look small and insignificant – as well they should.
Feeling a sense of exhilaration over the latest triumph is understandable, but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, as Elon Musk unfortunately has. In an interview, he spoke about the urgency of colonizing other planets for the sake of long-term human survival. He quoted Carl Sagan’s famous Pale Blue Dot speech – but to criticize it:
Musk reads from Sagan’s book: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.”
But there Musk cuts himself off and begins to laugh. He says with incredulity, “This is not true. This is false – Mars.”
Since Musk’s company SpaceX is a pioneer in building reusable rockets that could fling open the doors of practical space travel, I can’t be too harsh – but at this point in time, Carl Sagan is still right, and Musk is wrong. There’s no prospect of the human race settling on Mars any time soon.
I’m not saying this will be true forever. Someday it will be within the capacity of human civilization – and in the meantime, there’s no harm in dreaming. (If you’re reading my novel Commonwealth, you know that the settlement of Mars is a plot point.)
But we can’t let enthusiasm blind us to the practical problems. Mars is a barren desert with a surface temperature a hundred degrees below zero, no breathable atmosphere, no magnetic field to protect against radiation, no liquid water and no soil in which to grow crops. It’s just barely possible that we could get human beings there and back safely, but making it possible for them to live there would be an order of magnitude harder, and making the whole planet suitable for human settlement would be orders of magnitude beyond that.
What we’ve done with rovers like Perseverance is like sitting on the shore of the cosmic ocean and wetting our feet in the surf. It’s a significant step, but it’s only the very beginning. We have much bigger challenges ahead if we’re to go further onward.
Image credit: NASA