Mars mis­sion is a long shot that’s worth a $2 bil­lion bet

The Wichita Eagle (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY ROBERT GEBELHOFF

Imag­ine you’re try­ing to de­cide where to place your peg in a game of Bat­tle­ship. Ex­cept let’s change it up a bit. In­stead of look­ing at a small grid, you’re scan­ning an en­tire planet. And in­stead of look­ing for ships, you’re try­ing to find ev­i­dence of mi­cro­scopic life. And let’s add an­other fun twist: There might not even be any ac­tual “tar­gets” for you to find.

Sound like some­thing you’d be will­ing to bet more than $2 bil­lion on? Well, NASA’s do­ing it any­way.

This week, NASA an­nounced that it has locked on to the land­ing site for its next Mars rover, to be launched in 2020. The des­ti­na­tion: an an­cient lake bed known as the Jezero crater. It’s a hugely ex­pen­sive gam­ble in­tended to un­cover the se­crets of our plan­e­tary neigh­bor’s cryp­tic past – and it’s likely we will end up with more ques­tions than an­swers.

And yet, this is among the most ex­cit­ing space mis­sions of our life­time.

“I think, in the long run, this will be a no­brainer,” said Thomas Zur­buchen, as­so­ciate ad­min­is­tra­tor at NASA. As head of the agency’s sci­ence mis­sion direc­torate, he’s the man who called the multi­bil­lion­dol­lar shot, shap­ing the search for life be­yond our planet for the near fu­ture.

Zur­buchen rec­og­nizes that the mis­sion comes with risk. NASA plans to land the rover in the crater us­ing a rock­et­pow­ered sky crane – a mind-blow­ing ma­neu­ver in which a space­craft bar­rels into Mars’ at­mos­phere at break­neck speeds and, with the help of a para­chute and propul­sion rock­ets, slows down just enough to lower the rover onto the sur­face on ca­bles in midair. Such a land­ing isn’t un­prece­dented, but engi­neers re­fer to the pro­ce­dure as “seven min­utes of ter­ror.”

Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters is rough ter­rain full of boul­ders and sand dunes. And even if the rover man­ages to land without a hitch and se­cure the sam­ples it set out to col­lect, there’s no guar­an­tee that they’ll ever be de­liv­ered to Earth for study. The plan is to launch an­other rocket to Mars in the fu­ture to re­trieve those sam­ples and bring them to Earth, but such mis­sions have yet to be funded.

Zur­buchen also knows that plenty of sci­en­tists dis­agree that Jezero is the best place to look for signs of an­cient life on Mars. Oth­ers, for ex­am­ple, have pro­posed re­turn­ing to the hot springs in the planet’s Columbia Hills, where our Spirit rover ex­plored al­most a decade ago. Spirit didn’t have the tools needed to search for life, but it did find struc­tures sim­i­lar to those cre­ated in part by ex­tremophile bac­te­ria in hot springs on Earth.

But in the end, only one land­ing site could be cho­sen, and Jezero was de­ter­mined to be the best bet.

Af­ter all, if ev­i­dence of long-lost Mar­tian life ex­ists, it would make sense that it would be some­where where there was once shal­low wa­ter – hid­den in the dried-up clay of the lake bed.

The Jezero mis­sion is more than just a daunt­ing en­gi­neer­ing feat. It rep­re­sents the first rover mis­sion de­signed to seek signs of life be­yond Earth. And if ev­ery­thing goes ac­cord­ing to plan, it will be the first roundtrip mis­sion to an­other planet – a first step be­fore hu­mans make the trip them­selves.

For cen­turies, hu­mankind has been aim­ing at tar­gets we don’t know ex­ist. But we fire any­way, over the hori­zon. We might fail to find ev­i­dence of life on Mars, but the act of seek­ing it will be a great ac­com­plish­ment none­the­less.

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