New Delhi, Jul 30 (PTI) With NASA successfully launching its Mars-bound Perseverance rover from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the US, scientists say the mission's biggest and most exciting challenge would be in finding evidence of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.
Weighing at about 1,025 kilogrammes, the Perseverance rover, which is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, is expected to reach its landing site, the Jezero Crater, on the Martian surface on February 18, 2021.
Goutam Chattopadhyay, Senior Research Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, US, said the Jezero crater was chosen after exhaustive search by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) launched to survey the Red Planet in 2005.
According to NASA, the crater site was chosen because scientists believe the area may have been home to an ancient river delta.
'We believe that once it (Jezero crater) was flooded with water. Obviously, we are looking for carbon based life because that is the kind of life we know about and for that water and oxygen is a must,' Chattopadhyay told PTI.
'Our belief that the crater was a river delta before and if life ever existed on Mars or exist today, this location will have some signatures,' he added.
The rover, which is part of NASA's long-term effort of robotic exploration of Mars, carries seven instruments that will search for habitable conditions in the Red Planet's ancient past, and signs of past microbial life.
'We are looking for any organics, confirm methane -- how much and what is the source -- we believe it could be bio-related,' Chattopadhyay said.
'The reason this is difficult is because we do not know what we will find,' he explained.
During its mission period of a Martian year, or 687 Earth Days, Perseverance is also expected to collect a series of samples that can be returned to the Earth in the future.
Dwijesh Ray, planetary scientist at Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad, said he is thrilled about the possibility of the probe finding habitats conducive for life on the Red Planet.
He said the most exciting part of the Perseverance Mars rover mission, according to him, is the scientific analysis that will be conducted by the probe to test for the presence of ancient microbial life on the planet, and if a conducive habitable condition and liquid water may have existed on Mars.
According to Ray, the biggest challenge for the mission is the 'detection of biosignature using high resolution instruments onboard and also in returning the endogenic Martian sample back to Earth.' Deepak Singh, another planetary scientist from PRL concurred.
'The biggest challenge for the mission would be to search for organics, and detect the signs of past microbial life,' Singh told PTI.
Singh added that he is also excited about the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) that will be conducted by Perseverance to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere.
'I am excited about MOXIE instrument. If MOXIE can produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide then it would be a huge step towards realising the manned mission to the Mars,' he said in an email.
'We all know that Mars atmosphere has a high concentration of carbon dioxide, and MOXIE will produce molecular oxygen from carbon dioxide,' Chattopadhyay said.
According to the NASA scientist, the most exciting aspect of this experiment is that if it can show a sufficiently high production rate of oxygen, then scientists may be able to store enough of the gas for a future manned mission.
'The idea of this instrument is not to search for life but to sustain life when humans reach there in future,' he explained.
Singh added that another instrument aboard Perseverance called RIMFAX designed to study the Martian sub-surface using ground-penetrating radar, may also unravel several mysteries about the Red Planet's geological composition.
'The Martian sub-surface has been mysterious so far. The actual content is still guesses based on remote sensing instruments. The RIMFAX will pave a clear path for looking inside the surface, and figure out what's actually there,' he said.
NASA had earlier noted that the rover's mission will also characterise the planet's climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. PTI VIS SAR VIS VIS VIS VIS