Mars venture signals the triumph of science

Brendyn Burkitt, TechTalk

Millions of years ago, humanity had just begun
experimenting with sticks and stones. Now, we are
exceedingly close to putting a man on another planet,
potentially passing another historic rung on this arduous
ladder of human advancement. On
February 18, we became one step closer
to achieving that goal. As a culmination
of thousands of hours of development,
years of dedication, and billions of
dollars, Perseverance became the fifth
successful rover to land on Mars.
The rover departed Earth in late July
2020 and spent close to seven
months in space. The spacecraft
carrying the rover was to touch
down in the crater Jezero, once a
vast lake, described as topographically
similar to Lake Tahoe. The placement
of the rover in the vestiges of this great
lake was anything but accidental. In our
own world, dried up lakes and rivers contain sediment that
can hold evidence of ancient microbial life, and scientists
hoped that on Mars, this could be similarly determined
through the presence of certain organic compounds and
fossil-like structures. However, this was all contingent on
the rover’s success.
NASA estimated Perseverance’s landing to the minute.
The precision of this measurement produced a window of
immense anxiety. NASA could not be sure of what would
happen. Would the rover crash and burn or land softly on
the ground? Although the measurements were precise, the
variables were significant; only 40% of similar missions
had succeeded before.
I watched my computer screen in anticipation as I
heard, in the midst of short breaths, cheers erupt and
engulf the room. The mission was a success in all regards. I
would proclaim it as one of the greatest and most exciting
technological feats of the 21st century. The sheer distance
that this operation encompassed emphasizes the true
measure of the accomplishment. The Earth is over 150
million miles away from Mars. Thus, the spacecraft’s
position could not be collected in real-time, meaning
humans could not control it. Humanity had to place
its faith in artificial intelligence programs that, if they’d
misinterpreted even a single variable, would have resulted
in the mission’s utter failure.
The mission as a whole stood behind a foundation of
highly educated speculation. However, the hypothetical
aspects do not diminish the achievement but lay testament
to how incredible the event was. In our science classes, we
work to test experiments that involve just a few variables.
Often, at least in my experience, these labs run awry
because we commonly omit or fail to consider a variable.
Now imagine the scope of those experiments magnified
exponentially. We would be dealing with millions of
potential errors, outcomes, and unknowns.
Even with their previous successes, NASA could not
account every variation, for every possibility; mechanical
failures or miscalculations were an ever-present threat.
The replication of the rover, a complex machine, would not
just happen overnight. Moreover, the analysis to determine
the root of the rover’s downfall would be another matter. In
reality, if this mission failed, NASA’s next chance would not
present itself until years later. The livestream of the rover’s
descent, replete with desperate pleas of those who should
hold the most confidence in it, reflected that assertion.
Perseverance is not simply a replica of past models. It
includes a particularly fascinating modern addition: the
drone. Attached to the rover’s underside, the drone has
the purpose of surveying the terrain. More interestingly, it
will seek to be the first aircraft to fly on another planet—an
almost simplistic idea until we consider that man has yet to
even set foot on the planet, let alone move on it.
In a larger context, this rover is part of an operation
broken into three distinct segments: the gathering
of sediment samples, the retrieval of them, and the
transportation of them back to Earth. Each step will involve
multiple smaller ventures, which will take a minimum of a
decade to accomplish. The intent of this lengthy mission is
to bring home a taste of the red planet—to take samples of
sediment from Mars back to Earth to determine if life on
Mars exists, or once did.
The conversation surrounding life outside of this planet
has always been contentious. The idea that we are alone
in our universe is almost mathematically improbable.
I choose not to believe it. Somewhere in spaces’ vast
expanses, trillions of galaxies, countless solar systems, and
innumerable planets, life has to exist. Whether this rover
marks the beginning of a new era or the continuation
of our quest to prove we are not alone in this universe,
Perseverance presents possibilities.