Even a story about going to Mars can’t avoid COVID-19

  • A computer image of how the Perseverance rover should look on Mars. Courtesy of NASA

Monitor staff
Published: 8/10/2020 2:44:32 PM

Yesterday I woke up at 3 a.m. with a terrifying thought: What if COVID-19 is a sign that H.G. Wells got it backwards?

What if it’s not true that viruses will save us (spoiler alert!) by killing the Martian invaders, as Wells wrote in “War of the Worlds”? What if viruses are being used by the Martians to weaken us in preparation for an invasion? How would we know?

By going to look, that’s how. And fortunately, Earthlings are sending two new probes and a new orbiter to the Red Planet right now, including a NASA rover that, with any luck, will be partly controlled by some New Hampshire folks.

“We’ve all been very anxious, waiting to hear. It’s very competitive – should happen any time now,” said Dr. Frances Rivera-Hernandez, a planetary geologist post-doc at Dartmouth College who has submitted an application to be part of the science team that will de cide where the Perseverance rover will go and what it will do after it lands on Mars next February.

Dr. Marisa Palucis, an assistant professor at Dartmouth, is also on the waiting list. She has experience with the feeling: she been part of the science team for the Curiosity rover on Mars. She was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when NASA’s Curiosity rover landed and recalls it with the wistfulness that accompanies many pre-pandemic memories: “That was one of the top 10 days of my life.”

Controlling a car-sized piece of mobile scientific equipment from at least 34 million miles away is a non-trivial task, whether you’re looking for signs of imminent interplanetary assault or water levels a million years ago. Palucis described the process.

“Every morning you get up and the rover has sent images from day before. You look at it and decide, ‘Oh, this outcrop is really really interesting!’ Then the science team gets together and decides. It makes a science plan – drive to this rock, sample chemistry, take pictures – then they work the engineering team to put together the plan, which is beamed back to the rover,” Palucis said.

COVID-19 will complicate the process for Perseverance because the science team can’t get together in one room and work together on Mars time, in which each day is 24 ½ hours long. They’ll brainstorm via video-conference, which as we’ve all learned is not the same thing as doing it over a shared box of Dunkin Munchkins, but even so, hopes are high for what will be discovered when Perseverance starts racing across Mars at its top speed of one-tenth of a mile per hour.

For scientists, the rover’s biggest advantage is location. It will land at an alluvial fan, a delta of sediment deposited millennia ago by large amount of moving liquid of some kind.

Curiosity also landed near such a deposit “but drove away from the alluvial fan,” said Palucis. “Perseverance is going to be driving up it.”

“We’re going to be able to see from the sediment, layering of the sediment, how much water deposited and when – ground-truthing satellite images,” she said.

Rivera-Hernandez, who also studies such deposits on Earth, know what that means. “Mud is really good at preserving biosignatures, evidence of past life. This is one of the best places to be hunting for past signs of life on Mars,” she said. “The instruments on the rover were picked specifically to look for past signs of life.” That includes chemical analysis for organic molecules and cameras for very close-up pictures “looking for texture that we commonly attribute to microbial life on earth.”

But even if Perseverance doesn’t find multi-cellular fossils, analysis of the dirt and silt and rocks left by flowing water can tell us how likely it was that past life existed.

“If there was a river for 10,000 years, that’s not enough time to evolve life. If you had an ocean for a billion years – that’s a different matter,” said Palucis.

The Chinese are also sending a rover to Mars in their Tianwen-1 mission, which just launched. They’re being a little tight-lipped about what exactly it’s going to do, but both Dartmouth researchers didn’t sound too worried. More data is always a good thing to scientists.

It’s quite possible that next spring there will be three different rovers doing science on the surface of the planet, if Curiosity continues to set endurance records. There will also be more Mars orbiters than I can count, including one just launched by the United Arab Emirates of all places, taking pictures and recording data.

This is amazing, considering that a century ago we still thought the planet had canals from a failed civilization. On the other hand, it’s also just a drop in a very large bucket.

“If when we first started to study the geology of Earth we’d only had four geologists we’d have only known so little,” pointed out Palucis.

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If you want more geek in your week, subscribe to David Brooks’ free weekly newsletter at GraniteGeek.org. You can also listen to him talk about his stories on the GraniteGeek podcast, granitegeek.concordmonitor.com/podcast, or talk with Chris Ryan on WKXL radio at soundcloud.com/wkxl/


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