NASA’s Perseverance rover is preparing to land on the surface of Mars in what’s being described by many as ‘seven minutes of terror’. If the rover lands successfully an unmanned helicopter named Ingenuity will undertake the first-ever flight on another planet in a landmark effort to explore Mars and improve our understanding of the Red Planet.
Andrew Coates, a Professor of Physics and the Deputy Director of UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, explains what makes this Mars mission exceptionally difficult and how it will contribute to space exploration.
Sputnik: Why is this Mars rover landing such an important scientific event, what do experts hope to achieve from it?
Andrew Coates: What people hope to achieve is getting more evidence or possible evidence for life on Mars, and so there’s a couple of ways this mission is going to do that. I mean, after it’s amazing landings sequence, it will actually be able to analyse samples, which it drills using a six-centimetre drill, analyse those on the surface and send the results back to Earth. It will also collect samples on the surface, which will be ready for picking up by a new mission going off in the late 2020s, and so that will be a NASA and European Space Agency mission to actually bring the first samples of Mars back to Earth. There’s an added bonus with this mission, it has a helicopter called Ingenuity, and this is the first time that an independently flying thing will have been tried on another planet. So that’s a technology demonstration but nevertheless interesting, but scientifically of course, the most interesting bits are a potential discovery of Life on Mars. We don’t know of life anywhere else in the universe apart from Earth at the moment, so there’s a number of missions looking for this, so Perseverance is one of them, and then bring samples back to Earth for the first time as well. That’s also something which is definitely in the priority for space agencies actually doing this in the future. So, it’s an amazing mission and it also paves the way for a rover mission, which we are sending in two years’ time, the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover, so that is a collaboration between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos (the Russian Space Agency) so that combination is a very powerful one. With that we will have a rover which can drill up to two metres underneath the surface, so we can get below the really harsh surface of Mars. So, this combination of missions, with Perseverance landing this year doing its analysis, this is an amazing combination of instruments and a great time to be working on Mars exploration.