Twenty-five years ago that little robot, a six-wheeled rover named Sojourner, made it — becoming the first in a string of rovers built and operated by NASA to explore Mars. Four more NASA rovers, each more capable and complex than the last, have surveyed the Red Planet. The one named Curiosity marked its 10th year of cruising around on August 5. Another, named Perseverance, is busy collecting rocks that future robots are supposed to retrieve and bring back to Earth. China recently got into the Mars exploring game, landing its own rover, Zhurong, last year.
Other Mars spacecraft have done amazing science from a standstill, such as the twin Viking landers in the 1970s that were the first to photograph the Martian surface up close and the InSight probe that has been listening for Marsquakes shaking the planet’s innards (SN Online: 2/24/20).
Five U.S. rovers and one Chinese rover have reached Mars, all different visiting locations on the planet. Many focused on areas that may have once been wet and favourable for potential life.
Each of the Mars rovers has gone to a different place on the planet, enabling scientists to build a broad understanding of how Mars evolved over time. The rovers revealed that Mars contained water, and other life-friendly conditions, for much of its history. That work set the stage for Perseverance’s ongoing hunt for signs of ancient life on Mars.
Each rover is also a reflection of the humans who designed and built and drove it. Perseverance carries on one of its wheels a symbol of Mars rover tracks twisted into the double helix shape of DNA.
Curiosity introduced a new way of exploring Mars. When the rover arrives in a new area, it looks around with its cameras and then zaps interesting rocks with its laser to identify which ones are worth a closer look. Once up close, the rover stretches out its robotic arm and does science, including drilling into rocks to see what they are made of.
When Curiosity arrived near the base of Mount Sharp, it immediately spotted rounded pebbles shaped by a once-flowing river, the first closeup look at an ancient river on Mars. The mission controllers sent the rover rolling away from the mountain, toward an area in the crater known as Yellowknife Bay. Their Curiosity discovered evidence of an ancient lake that created life-friendly conditions for potentially many thousands of years.
Curiosity then headed back toward the foothills of Mount Sharp. Along the way, the rover discovered a range of organic molecules in many different rocks, hinting at environments that had been habitable for millions to tens of millions of years. It sniffed methane gas sporadically wafting within Gale crater, a still-unexplained mystery that could result from geologic reactions, though methane on Earth can be formed by living organisms. The rover measured radiation levels across the surface — helpful for future astronauts who’ll need to gauge their exposure — and observed dust devils, clouds and eclipses in the Martian atmosphere and night sky.
Ten years into its mission, Curiosity still trundles on, making new discoveries as it climbs the foothills of Mount Sharp. It recently departed a clay-rich environment and is now entering one that is heavier in sulfates, a transition that may reflect a major shift in the Martian climate billions of years ago.
In the course of driving more than 28 kilometres, Curiosity has weathered major glitches, including one that shuttered its drilling system for over a year. And its wheels have been banged up more than earthbound tests had predicted. The rover will continue to roll until some unknown failure kills it or its plutonium power wanes, perhaps five years from now.
Perseverance is basically a copy of Curiosity built from its spare parts, but with one major modification: a system for drilling, collecting and storing slender cores of rock. Perseverance’s job is to collect samples of Martian rock for future missions to bring to Earth, in what would be the first robotic sample return from Mars. That would allow scientists to do sophisticated analyses of Martian rocks in their earthbound labs.
The rover is working fast. Compared with Curiosity’s leisurely exploration of Gale crater, Perseverance has been zooming around its landing site, the 45-kilometer-wide Jezero crater, since its February 2021 arrival. It has collected 10 rock cores and is already eyeing where to put them down on the surface for future missions to pick up.
Perseverance went to Jezero to study an ancient river delta, which contains layers of sediment that may harbour evidence of ancient Martian life. But the rover slightly missed its target, landing on the other side of a set of impassable sand dunes. So it spent most of its first year exploring the crater floor, which turned out to be made of igneous rocks . The rocks had cooled from molten magma and were not the sedimentary rocks that many had expected.
Scientists back on Earth will be able to precisely date the age of the igneous rocks, based on the radioactive decay of chemical elements within them, providing the first direct evidence for the age of rocks from a particular place on Mars.
Once it finished exploring the crater floor in March, the rover drove quickly toward the delta. Each successive NASA rover has had greater skills in autonomous driving, able to identify hazards, steer around them and keep going without needing constant instructions from mission control.
Perseverance has a separate computer processor to run calculations for autonomous navigation, allowing it to move faster than Curiosity. (It took Curiosity two and a half years to travel 10 kilometres; Perseverance travelled that far in a little over a year.
In April, Perseverance set a Martian driving record, travelling nearly five kilometres in just 30 Martian days. If all goes well, it will make some trips up and down the delta, then travel to Jezero crater’s rim and out onto the ancient plains beyond.
While the United States has led in Mars rover exploration, it is not the only player on the scene. In May 2021, China became the second nation to successfully place a rover on Mars. Its Zhurong rover, named after a mythological fire god, has been exploring part of a large basin in the planet’s northern hemisphere known as Utopia Planitia.
The landing site lies near a geologic boundary that may be an ancient Martian shoreline. Compared with the other Mars rover locations, Zhurong’s landing site is billions of years younger, “so we are investigating a different world on Mars,” says Lu Pan, a planetary scientist at the University of Copenhagen who has collaborated with Zhurong scientists.
In many ways, Zhurong resembles Spirit and Opportunity, in size as well as mobility. It carries cameras, a laser spectrometer for studying rocks and ground-penetrating radar to probe underground soil structures .
After landing, Zhurong snapped pictures of its rock-strewn surroundings and headed south to explore a variety of geologic terrains, including mysterious cones that could be mud volcanoes and ridges that look like windblown dunes. The rover’s initial findings include that the Martian soil at Utopia Planitia is similar to some desert sands on Earth and that water had been present there perhaps as recently as 700 million years ago.
In May, mission controllers switched Zhurong into a dormant mode for the Martian winter and hope it wakes up at the end of the season, in December. It has already travelled nearly two kilometres across the surface, farther than the meager 100 meters that Sojourner managed. (To be fair, Sojourner had to keep circling its lander because it relied on that lander to communicate with Earth.)
From Sojourner to Zhurong, the Mars rovers show what humankind can accomplish on another planet. Future rovers might include the European Space Agency’s ExoMars, although its 2022 launch was postponed after Russia attacked Ukraine . Europe terminated all research collaborations with Russia after the invasion, including launching ExoMars on a Russian rocket.
@credits: science news