Mars rover carries NASA's long term ambitions

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NASA’s Perseverance rover is expected to reach the surface of Mars on Thursday afternoon carrying the space agency’s ambitions to make the Red Planet a primary destination for exploration in the next decade and beyond.

The spacecraft, which launched in July, is the first step in a years-long effort to bring samples of Martian dust back to Earth for further study and conduct first-of-its-kind experiments to create oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere.

It marks the beginning of an ambitious series of missions that will require the support of multiple administrations and billion of additional dollars. Failure on Thursday would upend at least two follow-on missions already planned and throw the entire Mars effort into question.

President Joe Biden has not yet laid out a robust space policy but the ultimate goal of landing humans on Mars has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, especially as other nations such as China are developing aggressive plans of their own to explore the planet.

“There is a shared interest in astrobiology that is not partisan,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), the new chair of the House space subcommittee. “If we can find currently existing life or previously existing life on Mars, that will change so much, not just science, but philosophy and religion and probably politics.”

The Perseverance mission is seen as the vanguard of NASA’s efforts to prove whether the vision of humans visiting another planet is even technologically feasible.

Successfully making oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is a key barrier to human exploration, said Briony Horgan, an associate professor of planetary science at Purdue University and a member of the rover’s science team.

And a follow-on mission to return the samples of the Martian soil will require engineers to figure out for the first time how to launch a spacecraft from the surface of Mars, which would be critical to someday bringing astronauts home.

Perseverance is also carrying a mini helicopter designed to fly in the Martian atmosphere, which is so thin it is like flying at 100,000 feet on Earth, NASA acting administrator Steve Jurczyk told POLITICO this week in an interview.

If the demonstration is successful, future helicopter missions on Mars could carry aerial sensors or help land-bound rovers scout potential paths for exploration, Jurczyk said.

If the spacecraft fails or has difficulty collecting dust on the surface, it would have wide implications. NASA is already planning for the two next phases to deliver more than a dozen vials of regolith, a layer of rocky material from the Martian surface, to Earth in 2031.

The follow-on missions will cost about $4 billion, in addition to the $2.7 billion spent on Perseverance.

If something goes seriously wrong with Perseverance, there’s no reason to fly those two additional missions, and NASA has no Mars missions in the pipeline, according to Casey Dreier, chief advocate at the Planetary Society.

The United States has successfully sent spacecraft to Mars eight times, but Thursday’s arrival is far from guaranteed.

Just before 4 p.m. eastern time, Perseverance will experience the so-called “seven minutes of terror,” the time it takes to make the perilous final journey from the edge of the Martian atmosphere to the surface. There’s also a roughly 10 minute delay in communications back to Earth.

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