Was there life on Mars? USC experts explore the upcoming NASA mission

With the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover about to launch, USC professors explain what we know about the planet already and what this latest mission can teach us.

July 29, 2020 Gary Polakovic

Mars moves into focus this week as NASA launches a new mission that USC experts say will be key to ascertaining if life ever existed on the planet next door and how humans might travel there.

The long-awaited launch of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is slated for 4:50 a.m. PDT on July 30. The mission, the latest in a series of U.S. and global endeavors spanning five decades, will achieve the most intimate understanding yet of Mars’ potential to host past and future life. China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates participated in launches of other Mars probes this month, the best travel window afforded in two years.

“Going to Mars will be an international effort as we divvy up the work and go as a species, the human race,” said Kenneth Phillips, an adjunct professor of physics and astronomy at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and curator of aerospace science at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. “This is a continuing adventure, and it’s getting more and more exciting. We’re scratching way below the surface on Mars now.”

To learn more, watch scientists and engineers from USC and the California Science Center for the “Countdown to Mars” broadcast on USC’s Facebook page. Panelists included former astronaut Garrett Reisman, astrobiology pioneer Kenneth Nealson and former NASA engineer Anita Sengupta.

Mars mission may determine feasibility of life there, USC experts say

Sengupta is an associate professor of astronautics at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and a former engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. An expert in spacecraft design, she was responsible for the supersonic parachute system of the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in 2012.

“Space agencies around the world are working together toward the goal of sending people to Mars. I think it will happen in my lifetime if we work together,” she said. “It takes a global village of explorers to share costs and leverage engineering expertise.”

The rocket ship carries a robot rover, Perseverance, which is an ATV with a mobile laboratory accompanied by a helicopter companion, Ingenuity. The rover will land in a big crater once filled with water to look for signs of microbes. It will drill into the dirt, cache samples and leave them for pickup by a later mission. The Perseverance rover is a 1-ton, nuclear-powered mobile laboratory that operates on 100 watts of energy — comparable to an indoor light bulb, said Madhu Thangavelu, professor of astronautical engineering at USC Viterbi and the USC School of Architecture.

It’s the holy grail for scientists to know if we are the exception or if the universe is teeming with life.

Madhu Thangavelu

“For the first time, we will be looking closely at the Martian surface. My hope for this mission is that we learn if there is — or ever was — life on Mars. It’s the holy grail for scientists to know if we are the exception or if the universe is teeming with life,” Thangavelu said. He’s an expert in the design of complex space projects, including space stations and exploratory missions.

Mars is particularly inhospitable to life today as it has no breathable atmosphere, temperature extremes and lethal radiation, Phillips said. But conditions were different in the past.

Mars was once a wet planet with water flowing across its surface, and the Perseverance rover is headed to a place called Jezero crater that is rich in clay and alluvium. It’ll poke around, checking for signatures of microorganisms and ancient life.

“Astrobiology is core to this mission. I would bet there’s no life on the surface of Mars today — it’s an extremely hostile environment — but there’s excitement that we’re going to find evidence whether there ever was life there in the past,” said Nealson, emeritus professor of Earth sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is an expert in microbial life in extreme environments and is a member of the science team for the 2020 Mars mission.

The next step regarding Mars: a manned spacecraft

Another goal is to make ready for the next big step: sending a manned spacecraft to Mars. The Perseverance rover will conduct an experiment called MOXIE in an attempt to convert carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere to oxygen. Scientists say that’s an important steppingstone to putting humans on Mars.

Travel to Mars is exceedingly difficult. Humans have only been as far as the moon, a mere 240,000 miles, but the average distance to Mars is about 140 million miles and takes about eight months.

And landing on Mars is tricky. For the landing craft, the deceleration forces are more than 10 times Earth’s gravity, and the entry vehicle exterior will exceed 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The vehicle decelerates from about 13,000 miles per hour to less than 1 mile per hour in less than 7 minutes, Sengupta explained.

Clearly, it’s going to take a long time before an astronaut can make the journey. A manned mission to Mars will require a worldwide commitment of resources as well as the energy and brilliance of the next generation of young people.

“For students and young people, the Mars mission is an adventure that’s getting more exciting as we inch our way farther into the solar system with the goal to put boots on the ground on another planet,” Phillips said. “We need to sustain that work, and this is a moment to capture imaginations so that highly motivated young people around the world commit to the adventure, pick up the baton and carry it forward.”