Surrounded as we are by breakdowns of science, engineering and imagination — just ask anyone who's tried to navigate the online system to register for a COVID-19 vaccination — an image from a Mars rover landing the same day more than 129 million miles away was a refreshing reminder of the collective capability of humanity.
Never mind the complexities of fighting back a pandemic, or the logistics of mass-producing and delivering vaccines to 7.8 billion people. Consider sending, orbiting and then dropping a 2,314-pound, 10-foot rover — it weighs less and is just smaller than a Toyota Prius — on the surface of our second-closest neighbor in the solar system. Cheers that went up in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which is operating the rover that left Earth last July 30, were well warranted and deserved.
Sending missions to Mars has been the endeavor of three generations of humanity, with nearly three failures for every success. Yet one can clearly trace a pattern of one mission building upon the previous. The promise of Perseverance, as the new rover is called, is that it will transmit insights and data that were previously unimagined.
With instruments that sound like appliances on the fictional Jupiter 2 spaceship inhabited by the Robinsons from “Lost in Space” — including an X-ray spectrometer and an ultraviolet laser — the rover is designed to look for geological evidence of ancient life. It landed in a region, the Jezero Crater, which was filled with water at least twice 3.5 billion years ago, according to NASA. That’s some 3.2 billion years before homo sapiens evolved here on Earth.
Scientists studying Mars believe that ancient water could’ve carried minerals that are the building blocks of life. “Conceivably microbial life could have lived in Jezero during one or more of these wet times. If so, signs of their remains might be found in lakebed sediments,” NASA says in a description of its mission.
Perseverance is also equipped with a drill, as is the Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the planet since August 2012. New on the Perseverance is radar designed to peer up to 33 feet below the surface in a search for rock, ice and perhaps water. It’s outfitted, as well, with a 4-pound, solar-powered helicopter that scientists hope will take the first human-engineered flight on a planet not our own.
None of this is possible without first surviving the entry, descent and landing of a Mars rover that a scientist in a NASA video referred to as “the seven minutes of terror.” So much can go wrong, including a disastrous change in course.
Dropping the six-wheel rover on the martian landscape as near as possible to the area where traces of microbial life are thought to be could reduce the rover’s travels by as much as a year, another scientist tells the science website Space.com. Perseverance was upgraded with equipment and systems specifically meant to narrow the area of its landing.
The work of doing all of this remotely — in a place so far that the fastest data transmissions take 11 minutes to traverse the space separating us — is profound in and of itself. It speaks not only to the ingenuity of our species but to our audacity and ambition.
How fitting that NASA looks to the dreams and imaginations of school children, unpolluted by cynicism, when it looks for names to put on its Mars rovers. It took 28,000 submissions from kindergartners to seniors in high school to name this one, then narrowed the list to 155 semifinalists. Those, in turn, were whittled to nine, among them “promise,” floated by Amira Shanshiry, a fifth-grader from Westwood.
The winner was inspired by Alexander Mather, who lives in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of northern Virginia. In his essay about the rover and its name, the eighth-grader talked of how names of previous missions have reflected the best traits of humanity — including spirit, opportunity and curiosity — but maybe not the most significant.
“We as humans evolved as creatures that could learn to adapt to any situation, no matter how harsh,” he wrote. “We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere.”
Of the many inspirational qualities of this latest NASA mission, the contribution of a middle schooler is among the most resonant.