UK scientists join NASA in search for life on Mars

UK scientists are set to play an essential role in NASA’s forthcoming Perseverance mission to Mars, which set for launch on July 30, 2020.  

NASA’s Perserverence rover will probe the surface of Mars for signs of ancient life; collect and cache rock samples; and trial technologies that could be used in future crewed missions to the planet. Image: NASA

Backed by the UK Space Agency, researchers at Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum will help the NASA’s Perseverance rover select Martian rock and soil samples to be brought back from the Red Planet as it searches for evidence of ancient microbial life.

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Perseverance Rover is scheduled to land on Mars’ 28-mile wide Jezero crater in February 2021, a location containing sediments of an ancient river delta where evidence of past life could be preserved.

According to the UK Space Agency, Professor Sanjeev Gupta, from Imperial College London, will help NASA oversee mission operations from a science and engineering point of view, and Imperial’s Professor Mark Sephton will assist in identifying samples that could contain evidence of past life.

Professor Caroline Smith, from the Natural History Museum, will study the mineralogy and geochemistry of the different rocks found in Jezero crater, whilst Dr Keyron Hickman-Lewis will study the environments reflected by the sedimentary rocks and the potential for signatures of ancient microbial life within them.

“The launch of NASA’s Perseverance Rover and the UK’s own Sample Fetch Rover vehicle, being developed in Stevenage, represents another critical step in building up our knowledge of life on the red planet,” said science minister Amanda Solloway. “I wish the mission every success.”

Samples will be collected by drilling 7cm down and then sealed in sample tubes and stored on the rover. When the rover reaches a suitable location the tubes will be dropped on the surface of Mars to be collected in a future mission by the Sample Fetch Rover. Currently being developed by Airbus in Stevenage, the Sample Fetch Rover will take the samples to the NASA Mars Ascent vehicle, which is scheduled to launch in 2026.

The Rover will also house the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter which has been designed to fly short distances and will mark the first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Perseverance will also be trialling technologies to help astronauts make future expeditions to Mars, including a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere; identifying other resources, such as subsurface water; improving landing techniques; and characterising weather and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living on Mars.

In a statement, Sue Horne, head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency, said: “It is amazing that we are undertaking the first step of a sequence of missions to collect samples from Mars and return them to Earth. This has been on scientists’ wish list for forty years and we now have the technology to achieve it and have started the missions needed.”

In two years, the Rosalind Franklin rover will go to Mars as part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission to examine the geological environment on Mars and search for signs of life. The Rosalind Franklin rover, which was built by Airbus in Stevenage, will be able to drill 2m below the surface, gathering samples from regions not affected by radiation.