Q&A: Planetarium Manager dissects Perseverance mission, why it’s exciting

Monday, February 22, 2021
Written by: Emily Hollingshead

Photo: Perseverance descends to the surface of Mars. This high-resolution still image is part of a video taken by several cameras as NASA's Perseverance rover touched down on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. (Photo courtesy of NASA).

With the touchdown of the rover Perseverance on Feb. 18 as part of the Mars 2020 mission, the world’s attention shifted back to the red planet. Derek Demeter, manager of the Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust Planetarium at Seminole State College of Florida, sat down to dissect the mission, what he expects us to learn from it and what it means for the ultimate goal of bringing humans to Mars.

Planetarium Manager Derek Demeter. 

For those out of the loop, what just happened?

Demeter: So basically, a small, car-size nuclear-powered robot attached with a first-time-ever helicopter drone, landed on the red planet in an area that is thought to be a place where we can potentially find life in the solar system outside Earth.

What is Perseverance’s mission?

Perseverance is part of a long-term mission. The idea is that it landed in an area known as Jezero crater, an impact site that eventually became essentially a lakebed or lake with an ancient river. So this water flowed through and brought in all these deposits, so Perseverance is looking for fossils or remnants of life in that area.

Those were not in the primary mission of the previous rovers. The most recent one was Curiosity, and its primary mission was to look at and prove for a fact that Mars was a wet world and we did that! Since we figured that out, now the next question is could life have existed on Mars? So that is the primary mission of Perseverance.

What makes Perseverance different?

The other thing that is going to be exciting about this mission is that Perseverance has all these really cool laboratory instruments. It’ll be able to use infrared to go down underneath the surface and scan for deposits of material where it could drill down and take samples.

It is going to take samples and leave them on the planet and then another mission will actually pick up those samples and bring them back to Earth. So, for the first time ever in human history, we’re going to have real Martian stuff on Earth, which is really, really cool.

When they talk about finding evidence of life on Mars, what form do they expect that to take?

This is the first high-resolution, color image to be sent back by the Hazard Cameras (Hazcams) on the underside of NASA's Perseverance Mars rover. A key objective for Perseverance's mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. (Photo courtesy of NASA).

We are talking microbial life. Back in ancient Earth time, we had these cyanobacteria which were the very first life forms to really emerge on Earth that were basically sucking up all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, using it for their food source and then releasing oxygen. We call this the Great Oxidation Event. Before that there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. Then suddenly, all this oxygen is being lifted and that actually transformed, terraformed if you will, our planet to be suitable for life. The by-product of that were these deposits called stromatolites.

So, if Mars had life, could it have had microbial life and done a process similar to ours and can we find traces of that process? An extreme would be where we find clay deposits that have small, gastropod-like fossils or even minerals like our limestone that are made from ancient shells and organisms. I mean, we can open our imagination, but I think the realistic thing is that microbial evidence.

What is Ingenuity?

Ingenuity is this little helicopter drone device. It is the first of its kind that's been sent to another planet. This helicopter device is going to be able to scout locations for the mission. So instead of Perseverance just driving blindly so to say, we'll be able to make better informed decisions, look out for hurdles in advance and plan ahead.

What is Moxie? Why does it matter for us?

What's so cool about Moxie is that it is actually experimental tech that will absorb the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and release oxygen as a by-product and you say, well, what's the big deal about that? Well, think about what the next step is. We're hoping to send humans to Mars, right? So if we can test this here on this mission, we can use this technology when we get humans to Mars to produce our atmosphere, produce air that we need to breathe, or produce our rocket fuel since we use oxygen to propel our rockets in space. We’ll be sustainable and use what is available on the planet instead of continuously sending rocket fuel from Earth.

So why do we want to send humans to Mars?

Our discoveries on Earth have been mostly because of our determination to dig, to climb, to scale walls and to do all kinds of crazy things. This mission will hopefully help inspire the next generation to go.

Derek Demeter.

The answer to that is that humans can do a lot more than robots can. Robots can climb rocks ok, but they still have to be told what to do. Humans can think. We can make our own decisions; we can bring tools and we’re way more efficient at what we do. Perseverance can look for life on Mars, but it is still limited in its ability. Our discoveries on Earth have been mostly because of our determination to dig, to climb, to scale walls and to do all kinds of crazy things. This mission will hopefully help inspire the next generation to go.

What excited you most about this program?

I’m a big geology and fossil-hunting nerd so for me, the aspect of landing in the site that once potentially had life is the thing I’m most excited about. I’m also excited about the engineering side, to see Ingenuity fly around Mars. I think that is incredible, and of course the Moxie project is the extra bonus of getting us closer to bringing humans to Mars.

About the Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust Planetarium

Located on Seminole State’s Sanford/Lake Mary Campus, the Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust Planetarium at Seminole State College of Florida offers live, interactive shows and full-dome video presentations. For more information on the Buehler Planetarium and upcoming events, visit the planetarium website, like the planetarium on Facebook and follow it on Twitter and Instagram: @seminoleplanet.