Feb 19, 2021 - Science

Mars is coming into focus

Illustration of a magnifying glass showing a focused section of an otherwise blurry Mars
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Three new missions that just arrived at Mars — including the latest U.S. rover that landed Thursday — will help paint a brand new picture of the Red Planet.

Why it matters: Scientists think that Mars was once a relatively warm and habitable world. These missions from China, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. will help researchers get a more holistic view of what the planet was like billions of years ago, with an eye toward past life — if the countries collaborate scientifically.

Driving the news: NASA's Perseverance rover successfully landed on Mars Thursday. The rover is designed to hunt for any signs of past life — including microbial life — in what was once a lake billions of years ago.

  • Once China's Tianwen-1 rover lands in the coming months, that mission is also expected to hunt for possible signs of life in a different part of Mars and examine the distribution of ice and other geology on the planet.
  • The UAE's Hope probe will help fill in gaps in understanding about Mars' weather and how its atmosphere has escaped to space over the course of millions of years, turning it from a wet world into the barren one we see today.
  • "Mars has been a focus since the very beginning of us talking about where we might find life," Mary Voytek, director of NASA’s astrobiology program, said during a press briefing before Perseverance's landing.

The intrigue: These missions weren't possible just a handful of years ago, for different reasons.

  • China and the UAE are both new entrants to the Mars club, a small group of agencies and countries — including the European Space Agency, India and the former Soviet Union — that have made it to the Red Planet successfully.
  • Perseverance, on the other hand, is designed to build on the science done by previous rovers sent to Mars by NASA — including the Curiosity rover, which is still roaming a different part of the surface today.
  • Percy — as some call it — is the culmination of decades of NASA work that has led to the rover's more advanced instruments, including one that can convert atmospheric carbon dioxide to oxygen (something we might want to do if humans land there someday).
"The instruments on Perseverance ... are absolutely more capable than the ones we had on Curiosity. So it's this evolution that we've seen in Earth science missions, now we see that kind of evolution on planetary missions."
— NASA acting administrator Steve Jurczyk to Axios

Between the lines: Remaking humanity's understanding of Mars will likely require major data-sharing initiatives between nations operating probes at the Red Planet.

  • For its part, NASA has a long-standing policy of sharing data beamed back from spacecraft openly and quickly after getting it back to Earth.
  • A key principle at NASA is "open sharing of all of our scientific data for researchers in the United States and around the world," Jurczyk said.
  • The UAE is also planning to share its Hope data globally, with its first release expected in September, according to a statement.
  • "Our aim with this approach [is] to not only ensure widespread use of the data but to set high international standards in open science. The mission will collate more than a terabyte of new Mars data," the UAE said in a statement.

Yes, but: It's not yet clear how or when China will share the scientific data collected by Tianwen-1.

  • The nation didn't publicly share data collected by its rover and lander on the far side of the Moon until about a year after it was gathered, according to the Heritage Foundation's Dean Cheng, but it could be different with this Mars mission.
  • "Of course, given the UAE and US missions, they may be compelled to share earlier, as it would look bad if they held off," Cheng said via email. "So, optimistically, perhaps only a few weeks' delay. But most likely months."
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