2021-02-06 21:03:38 UTC
A Wright Brothers moment on Mars will expand our cosmic perspective
Feb. 5, 2021 at 12:49 pm Updated Feb. 5, 2021 at 12:49 pm
This illustration made available by NASA depicts the Ingenuity Mars
helicopter on the red planet’s surface near the Perseverance rover,
left. (NASA /J PL-Caltech via AP)
By Melissa Rice
Special to The Times
A spacecraft is currently hurtling toward Mars at 5,700 mph — preparing
to touch down in Jezero crater at 12:55 p.m. on Feb. 18 — and we all
should be getting excited.
This is NASA’s most ambitious Mars mission ever, carrying the
Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter. Seattle-area businesses
Aerojet Rocketdyne and First Mode, and scientists at the University of
Washington and Western Washington University, helped design and build
Perseverance will collect samples of Mars rocks to bring back to Earth.
Studying those rocks in sophisticated laboratories on this planet is how
we can best assess whether they preserve signs of ancient life. This
mission is trying to answer one of most profound questions we can ask:
“Are we alone in the universe?”
As a team member for Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z science cameras, I am
personally most excited to see the stunning, otherworldly vistas from
the rover. I anticipate that we will photograph a spectacular landscape
cut by ancient rivers and lakes — but if NASA’s previous Mars rover
missions have taught me anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
In this Dec. 17, 2019, photo made available by NASA, engineers monitor
a driving test for the Mars rover Perseverance in a clean room at the
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California The robotic vehicle is
planned to touch down in an ancient river delta and lake known as Jezero
Crater. (J. Krohn / NASA via AP, File)
In this Dec. 17, 2019, photo made available by NASA, engineers monitor a
driving test for the Mars rover Perseverance in a clean room at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California The robotic... (J. Krohn /
NASA via AP, File) More
Even though NASA has landed on Mars eight times, every mission made
surprising discoveries, from remnants of ancient hot springs explored by
Spirit, to the “blueberries” (spheres of iron formed in water) found by
Opportunity, to mudstones preserving organic molecules as confirmed by
Curiosity. Each rover has upended our understanding of Mars. Who knows
what Perseverance might find in Jezero crater?
Aerospace aficionados should get excited about Ingenuity Marscopter, the
first powered flight on another planet. Because Mars’ atmosphere is so
thin — only 1% of the density of Earth’s — Ingenuity has to be extremely
lightweight and efficient. The apple-sized craft weighs only 4 pounds,
with two sets of blades measuring 4 feet across. This is a Wright
Brothers moment on Mars.
As exciting as this mission is, it may not be obvious why we should care
about anything beyond Earth right now. With an ongoing pandemic and
people struggling to make ends meet, it might seem insensitive to use
government funds to send a robot to Mars. Every publicly funded endeavor
should reckon with the question of “should we be spending taxpayer money
on this?” — even in the best of times.
For Perseverance, my answer is unequivocally “yes.” This money isn’t
launched into space — it invests in people: the majority of spending on
any NASA mission goes to those who design, build, test and operate the
spacecraft. Those people are distributed across the country, including
Washington state. In my lab at WWU, NASA funds pay student salaries and
tuition. It provides them a unique pathway to gain skills and experience
that — among other things — make them ideal candidates for Washington’s
tech and aerospace industries.
In the context of government spending, Perseverance is actually pretty
cheap. The $2.7 billion cost of the mission is disbursed over 11 years
of development and operation. In 2021, NASA will spend about as much on
Perseverance as the Department of Defense will spend on its golf
courses. We’ve spent more on COVID-19 relief in the last year than we’ve
allocated to NASA in its entire history. It was not a choice between the
two. A wealthy nation can simultaneously help its people and invest in
pushing the boundaries of knowledge.
Now is an especially important time to take a cosmic perspective. The
search for life in the solar system teaches us how precious life really
is. Photographs from Mars, some of which capture the Earth in a single
pixel, reveal our entire world as a speck — an oasis in a vast, hostile
universe. And soon, when we see a helicopter flying through the air of
an alien planet, we’ll remember that humans can — and do — achieve great
Yes, we have a lot to be excited about.
Melissa Rice is an associate professor of planetary science at Western
Washington University, and a member of NASA’s Curiosity rover and
Perseverance rover science teams.
Most Read Opinion Stories
Is there a vaccine for entitlement?
Seattle School board's virtual public meetings deserve a failing grade
Seattle and Sequim show why local elections matter
New Amazon CEO’s 'scary' meetings make sense
Long overdue reality check