Our best attempts yet at finding alien life

Jezero Crater, the targeted landing site for the Mars 2020 mission. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL.

The following perspective is written well into the Mars 2020 mission. It is set in the future but all features of the rover, mission dates, locations, etc. are accurate to real life. I hope you enjoy.

The Perseverance rover had been traversing the surface of Mars for just over 600 Earth days. When it reached 687 the mission would officially be over — or at least that had been the intention. It skidded down the side of a small, ruddy incline and descended into a valley with cracked open floors. The wheels’ improved design had endured much better than those of Curiosity. Their aluminum was thicker and provided better traction on the planet’s rusted rocky landscape.

As the rover continued into the heart of the crater its microphones recorded the sound of the day’s journey. There was the mechanical purr of the motors as they worked the wheels and turned the rover’s head where the dust-licked SuperCam was located. In the scratchy pour of the audio recordings one could also hear the heat pumps working to keep the rover warm. Unlike on Earth the average temperature of Mars dipped to a frosty -81 degrees Fahrenheit. But this is what the rover was built for: weather conditions which would otherwise seem extreme to Earth’s innovative and delicate organisms.

They were funny organisms, too. Perhaps one of the most whimsical of all facts about the rover was its placard where three microchips carried the name of nearly 11 million people. The names had been engraved via an electron beam. All millions and millions of them taking up less space than a single playing card. It was one of the few features of Perseverance that served no practical purpose. There were a bounty of scientific tools onboard including 23 cameras, 2 microphones, and 7 different instruments for gathering data. But this little placard affixed into place…and for what? So 11 million people of Earth could feel like a piece of them had travelled 310 million miles, combing through the surface of a planet they’d likely never get to land on? It was a tender if forlorn gesture.

The “Send Your Name to Mars” placard as installed on the Perseverance rover. NASA is now accepting reservations to send your name on future missions to the red planet. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech.

But the rover had come here with a very real scientific mission. It was a mission that set it apart from all the brave machines which had come before. Along the surface of the planet Perseverance had left ultra-clean tubes containing samples of Mars itself. It had nicked the planet, specially chosen hearts of rock and soil to drill into before storing them in containers that were then carefully deposited on the dry, grainy land. A future mission would see them picked up by a new craft and ferried back to Earth so they could be better studied. It’d be the first time in history that a piece of Mars would be handpicked and carried back to Earth by manmade machines; the human reach exceeding its grasp.

These people back on the blue planet had a need to write stories. They needed more details to fill in the evolution of their Solar System, and their eventual existence. This mission was meant to help explain the race’s loneliness amongst the stars. Were they really the only life that had ever developed? Or had there been other organisms born on Mars at the same time organisms had been born on Earth? This search was for the long lost siblings of Earth-life which had hummed and died out before they could become more complex. Yes, the main reason Perseverance was there was to look for ancient microbial life.

“It will be a great moment of introspection for humanity if you’re the person that finds that one little fossilized flower on Mars.” Astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Even if no evidence of life was found the data obtained would help pave the way for humans to arrive in the future. The rover had tried its best to do this by searching for subsurface lakes and testing ways in which it might be possible to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. Onboard equipment known as MOXIE had attempted to split carbon dioxide molecules into carbon monoxide and oxygen. If the analyzed data proved MOXIE to be successful, well… It could mean happy breathing for future dwellers of the red planet. As it was 96% of the atmosphere is CO2, a natural resource mankind could exploit to make their new lives here easier.

An overview of all the scientific instruments available on the rover. Image by NASA.

There was a rickety, sifting noise as the rover crushed some soft rocks and then came to a stop. A fleshy mound of sediment in the far corner bared the signs of where the onboard SuperCam had shot and vaporized a dent in it to exam the plasma. The SuperCam was the head of the rover, and a rather formidable one at that. It had melted rough Martian land from 20 feet away and built a chemical report on it. It was something out of science fiction. But much of the technology in service today had at some point seemed like science fiction.

This crater wasn’t just any ordinary crater, either. It had been chosen special. Its name, “Jezero”, meant “lake”. Surrounding it were blooming, arching hills that cast shadows on Perseverance as it rode by, leaving its faint imprints on the otherwise untouched geography. The crater’s inflow and outflow channel meant that there was good reason to believe there had been water here at some point. Splashing, gleaming, sloshing, life-sustaining water. A magic elixir. Sediment at the bottom of the lake could have buried and thus preserved microorganisms. The rover itself was merely a machine, and not one which had been programmed with things like excitement or contemplation. Whether or not the samples it had dug out contained life was unknown to Perseverance. It didn’t really matter at all. But none of that would be known until those mysterious little tubes were back on Earth some time in the 2030’s.

It had shifted into full-night now and Perseverance’s lights stood out against the uninterrupted dark. This wasn’t like night on Earth with its fluorescent signs and highway beams spilling into everything but the most secluded wilderness. This was a liquid blackness. So rich you could almost reach into it and touch it.

It was anyone’s guess what the next 87 days would bring. A dust storm like the one that had killed Opportunity back in 2019? But Opportunity’s journey exploring Mars had lasted over a decade despite having a mission expectation of only 90 days. Perseverance was more durable and advanced than any rover, meaning there were likely many more years ahead before its exploration truly came to an end.

It wasn’t all so quiet. Curiosity was still running around somewhere in much the same fashion as Perseverance and, together with Ingenuity (the ambitious Mars helicopter which had hitched a ride on Perseverance’s belly during launch), the 3 machines made up the sole inhabitants of the very rustic, untamed nation of Mars. A world populated by robots.

Ingenuity was a demonstration technology sent along on the Mars 2020 mission. The small helicopter was to test the first powered flight in the Spring of 2021. Over 30 days its less than 4 pound body attempted to fly in the ultra-thin Martian atmosphere. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech.

It was always said that to truly unlock the secrets of Mars it was necessary to collect pieces of it and bring them back to Earth. It was only a matter of time now until the most comprehensive examination of its soil samples helped answer the all important question of whether or not there had ever been life.

There was a channel on Mars, near a rather ordinary tawny slope, that was known as “Perseverance Valley”. It was Opportunity’s final resting place. There’d be something suitable and poetic in having Perseverance drive over to the valley in its final days. Settle in, make a home there. First the Opportunity, and then the Perseverance which came after.