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Destination Mars

Destination Mars

1. CONTEXT OF THE NEWS 

Recently on 30 July 2020, NASA launched its latest rover to Mars named Perseverance under the ‘Mars 2020’ Mars rover mission.

This editorial discusses NASA’s previous rovers to Mars and the new features in this the fourth-generation rover.

The editorial also explores the recent interest in Mars.

2. NASA AND MARS EXPLORATION

2.1 A brief history

  • NASA's first rover mission to Mars began about 23 years ago in 1997 with the Pathfinder Mission in which the Sojourner rover drove on the Martian Soil for the first time.
  • The success of Mars Pathfinder changed the subsequent history of Mars Exploration.
  • Consequently, NASA sent twin rovers to Mars in 2003 named Spirit and Opportunity, followed by rover Curiosity in 2012.

2.2 Mars Pathfinder Mission

  • Mars Pathfinder was a technology demonstration mission.
  • It was put together on a very tight budget and many had thought that it would fail.
  • However, its success changed the due course of Mars Exploration in the years to come.
  • It was designed to demonstrate the delivery of a lander (Carl Sagan Memorial Station) and a free-ranging robotic rover (Sojourner rover) on Martian surface in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

3. NASA ROVERS

3.1 Significance of Rovers

  • Rovers are very helpful in studying the local area in a much higher resolution than can be done from an orbiting spacecraft.
  • Additionally, rovers carry a suite of instruments ranging from drills to spectrometers to microscopic imagers.
  • These complex scientific instruments are very helpful in understanding the local geology in a manner similar to a field geologist studying rocks on Earth.
  • Furthermore, beginning with Spirit and Opportunity, rovers have also acted as mobile weather stations on Mars.
  • These rovers continuously monitor changes in the Martian atmosphere for many years.

3.2 Instrument suite

  • NASA has added new capabilities and different instrument suite to explore new scientific frontiers with subsequent generation of rovers.
  • A drill was added in Spirit and Opportunity while additions for Curiosity included
    • a mass spectrometer
    • an instrument to measure isotopes of different elements
  • NASA has continued the tradition of enhancing instrument suite with the launch of its fourth generation Mars rover, the Mars Perseverance.

3.3 Size of the rovers

  • While the Sojourner rover lasted for 83 days, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity lasted for 6 and 15 years respectively setting up new paradigm of a long-term robotic presence on Mars.
  • The Curiosity rover, landing in 2012 continues to operate even today.
  • The count and complexity of the scientific instruments increased with the subsequent generation on rovers.
  • At a couple of feet in length and width, Sojourner was a small rover.
  • On the other hand, rovers Spirit and Opportunity were about the size of a golf cart and Curiosity and Perseverance are the size of a small car.

4. WHAT’S NEW IN MARS PERSEVERANCE

  • Going forward with the tradition of enhancing capabilities and instrument suits in its subsequent generation of rovers, NASA has added the following new capabilities in Mars Perseverance:

4.1 Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE)

  • It is a unique instrument, which will for the first time, manufacture molecular oxygen on Mars using carbon dioxide from the carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere of Mars.
  • NASA is increasingly pushing for In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), which is the use of local resources to meet the requirements of the spacecraft or human needs.
  • Without ISRU, the future explorations of MARS will become very expensive rendering it impossible.
  • Carrying Oxygen or water or rocket fuel for a two-year journey to Mars and back will be incredibly expensive.

4.2 Manufacturing oxygen on Mars

  • Successful extraction of oxygen on Mars itself will have two direct advantages:
    • The oxygen can be used for human exploration of Mars.
    • The oxygen can be used for manufacturing rocket fuel for the return journey.
  • Hence, the successful technology demonstration of MOXIE would allow NASA to scale up oxygen generation rate per day for MOXIE by a hundred times very easily.
  • This could be of tremendous significance to future human mission to Mars.

4.3 Ingenuity

  • The second addition to Mars Perseverance is 'Ingenuity', which will become the first ever helicopter to fly on Mars.
  • This is going to be the first time when NASA will fly a helicopter on another planet or satellite.
  • Tasked with the challenge of flying a helicopter in the thin atmosphere of Mars, Ingenuity is also a technology demonstration.
  • Helicopter 'Ingenuity' will help in rover drive planning and in fetching samples from places where the rover reach or safely drive to, in a similar fashion as drones are used on Earth.
  • Successful demonstration of this technology will lead to an increased role for such helicopters in future missions.

4.4 Biosignatures

  • Third and the most important enhancement in Mars Perseverance is that it is the first planned trip to bring back rock samples from Mars for analysis in sophisticated laboratories on Earth.
  • The goal of analysis is to look for biosignatures or signatures of present or past life on Mars.
  • Perseverance is supposed to collect the rock samples and NASA will plan a second rover mission within a decade to transport the rock sample back to the Earth.
  • The analysis of the rocks from Mars are also likely to provide a reliable indication of feasibility of life on Mars in the past or at present.

5. THE FASCINATION WITH MARS

5.1 Near-term interest in Mars

  • Located at a distance of around 200 million km from Earth, Mars is a fascinating planet for humankind.
  • Mars had liquid water and an atmosphere in the distant past probably supported life as well.
  • Given the location and nature of the planet Mars, humans can aspire to visit or stay at Mars for longer duration.

5.2 Human Exploration of Mars

  • However, the near term increase in the interest in Mars is due to plans of commercial travels to the planet by Elon Musk.
  • Space agencies around the world including NASA have aspired for a human mission to Mars.
  • A man-mission to Mars is technologically possible.
  • However, the cost of such a mission is estimated to be to the tune of $500 billion, which is 20 times the budget of NASA.
  • Therefore, a man mission to Mars by NASA is largely aspirational due to lack of funding.

6. WAY AHEAD - POSSIBILITY OF HUMAN EXPLORATION

6.1 A feasible plan by Musk

  • Elon Musk has unveiled a new architecture for the journey to Mars.
  • Musk envisions a combination of cost saving measures as:
    • reusable launch vehicles
    • in-orbit refuelling
    • manufacturing rocket fuel on Mars
  • This will reduce the cost of the journey to Mars down by 1/1000th making the price per passenger for the journey to Mars on Musk's Starship Spaceship in the order of $200,000 or Rs 1.5 crore.

6.2 The Starship Spacecraft

  • The Starship Spacecraft launch vehicle is at the center of Musk's plan.
  • With the capability of transporting 100 metric tonnes to Earth Orbit, the Starship Spacecraft is the most powerful launch vehicle ever built.
  • SpaceX (American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation Services Company founded by Elon Musk) has scheduled to fly around the Moon with its first private passenger in 2023 and has an ambitious aim of a crewed mission to Mars by 2024.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION 

Mars Rovers by NASA

Mars Pathfinder

  • Launch Date - 4 December 1996
  • Mars Pathfinder consisted of a lander and the Sojourner rover.
  • It returned an unprecedented amount of data as the lander and rover explored an ancient flood plain in the northern hemisphere of Mars known as Ares Vallis.
  • This was largely a technology demonstration mission.

Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity)

  • Spirit - Launch date - 10 Jun 2003 and Landing date - 3 Jan 2004
  • Opportunity Launch date - 7 July 2003 and Landing date - 24 Jan 24 2004
  • These powerful rovers are still on the red planet and had a greater mobility than the 1997 Mars Pathfinder rover had.
  • The goal of these rovers was to look for evidences of liquid water that might have been present in the past on the planet surface.
  • The identical rovers are exploring different regions of Mars.

Curiosity Rover

  • The car sized rover Curiosity was designed as a part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Mission (MSL).
  • It landed on Aeolis Palus inside Gale on Mars and explored the Gale Crater on Mars.
  • Launch date - 26 November 2011
  • Landing date - 6 August 2012.
  • The objectives of the rover included
    • investigation of climate and geology of Mars
    • investigate if past conditions on Mars were favourable for microbial life
    • role of water on life
    • habitability studies on Mars in preparation for human exploration

Source: Indian Express