March 17, 2022, was a rough day for Jorge Vago. A planetary physicist, Vago heads science for part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars program. His team was mere months from launching Europe’s first Mars rover — a goal they had been working toward for nearly two decades. But on that day, ESA suspended ties with Russia’s space agency over the invasion of Ukraine. The launch had been planned for Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is leased to Russia.
“They told us we had to call the whole thing off,” Vago says. “We were all grieving.”
It was a painful setback for the beleaguered Rosalind Franklin rover, originally approved in 2005. Budget woes, partner switches, technical issues and the Covid-19 pandemic had all, in turn, caused previous delays. And now, a war. “I’ve spent most of my career trying to get this thing off the ground,” Vago says. Complicating things further, the mission included a Russian-made lander and instruments, which the member states of ESA would need funding to replace. They considered many options, including simply putting the unused rover in a museum. But then, in November, came a lifeline, when European research ministers pledged 360 million euros to cover mission expenses, including replacing Russian components.
When the rover finally does, hopefully, blast off in 2028, it will carry a suite of advanced instruments — but one in particular could make a huge scientific impact. Designed to analyze any carbon-containing material found underneath Mars’s surface, the rover’s next-generation mass spectrometer is the linchpin of a strategy to finally answer the most burning question about the Red Planet: Is there evidence of past or presentlife?
“There are a lot of different ways that you can search for life,” says analytical chemist Marshall Seaton, a NASA postdoctoral program fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and coauthor of a paper onplanetary analysisin theAnnual Review of Analytical Chemistry. Perhaps the most obvious and direct route is simply looking for fossilized microbes. Butnonliving chemistrycan createdeceptively lifelike structures. Instead, the mass spectrometer will help scientists look for molecular patterns that are unlikely to be formed in the absence of living biology.
Hunting for the patterns of life, instead of structures or specific molecules, has an added benefit in an extraterrestrial environment, Seaton says. “It allows us to not only look for life as we know it, but for life as we don’t know it.”
(CREDIT: ESA / ATG MEDIALAB)Artist’s rendition of the Rosalind Franklin rover.
Packing for Mars
At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington, DC, planetary scientist William Brinckerhoff shows off a prototype of the rover’s mass spectrometer, known as the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer, or MOMA. Roughly the size of a carry-on suitcase, the instrument is a labyrinth of wires and metal. “It’s really a workhorse,” Brinkerhoff says as his colleague, planetary scientist Xiang Li, adjusts screws on the prototype before demonstrating a carousel that holds samples.
This working prototype is used to analyze organic molecules in Mars-like soils on Earth. And once the real MOMA gets to Mars, approximately in 2030, Brinckerhoff and his colleagues will use the prototype — as well as a pristine copy kept in a Mars-like environment at NASA — to test tweaks to experimental protocols, troubleshoot issues that come up during the mission and facilitate interpretation of Mars data.
This latest mass spectrometer can trace its roots backnearly 50 years, to the first mission that studied Martian soil. For the twin 1976 Viking landers, engineers miniaturized room-size mass spectrometers to roughly the footprint of today’s desktop printers. The instruments were also on board the 2008 Phoenix lander, the 2012 Curiosity rover and later Mars orbiters from China, India and the US.
Anyone visiting Brinckerhoff’s prototype must first pass a display case with a dismantled copy of the Viking instrument, on loan from the Smithsonian Institution. “This is like a national treasure,” Brinckerhoff says, enthusiastically pointing out components.
(Credit:CARMEN DRAHL)At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, William Brinckerhoff stands next to a working prototype of the Rosalind Franklin rover's mass spectrometer.
Mass spectrometers are indispensable tools that are used for analytical chemistry in laboratories and other facilities worldwide. TSA agents use them to test luggage for explosives at the airport. EPA scientists use them to test drinking water for contaminants. And drugmakers use them to determine chemical structures of potential new medications.
Many kinds of mass spectrometers exist, but each “is a three-part instrument,” explains Devin Swiner, an analytical chemist at the pharmaceutical company Merck. First, the instrument vaporizes molecules into the gas phase, and also gives them an electrical charge. These charged, or ionized, gas molecules can then be manipulated with electric or magnetic fields so they’ll move through the instrument.
Second, the instrument sorts ions by a measurement that scientists can relate to molecular weight, so they can determine the number and type of atoms a molecule contains. Third, the instrument records all the “weights” in a sample along with their relative abundance.
With MOMA aboard, the Rosalind Franklin rover will land at a Martian site that roughly 4 billion years ago likely had water, a crucial ingredient for ancient life. The rover’s cameras and other instruments will help to select samples and provide context about their environment. A drill will retrieve ancient samples from as deep as two meters. Scientists hypothesize that’s far enough, Vago says, to be shielded from cosmic radiation on Mars that breaks up molecules “like a million little knives.”
Space-bound mass spectrometers must be rugged and lightweight. A mass spectrometer with MOMA’s capabilities would normally occupy multiple workbenches, but it’s been shrunk substantially. “To be able to take something that can be as big as a room to the size of like a toaster or a small suitcase and send it into space is a very huge deal,” Swiner says.
(CREDIT: ESA / THALES ALENIA SPACE)The Rosalind Franklin rover’s drill, pictured here in simulated Mars terrain, can reach up to two meters beneath Mars’s surface, deeper than attempted by any other rover on the Red Planet. It will provide samples for the rover’s mass spectrometer to investigate for signs of life.
The look of life
MOMA will help scientists look for telltale signs of life on Mars by sifting through molecules in search of patterns that are unlikely to be formed any other way. For instance, lipids — compounds that include building blocks of cell membranes — have a preponderance of even numbers of carbon atoms in nearly all living things, while nonliving chemistry produces a more equal mix of even and odd numbers of carbon atoms. Finding a set of lipids with carbon atoms that are multiples of a number — rather than a random assortment — is a potential signature of life.
Similarly, amino acids — the building blocks of proteins — can be created either by life or by non-biological chemistry. They come in two forms that are mirror images of each other but are otherwise identical, like left and right hands. On Earth, life overwhelmingly contains only left-handed amino acids. Nonliving chemistry makes both left- and right-handed varieties. In other words, a large excess of either left- or right-handed amino acids is more lifelike than a more even mixture.
More generally, scientists think that chemical distributions similar to these would be indicative of life even if the molecules exhibiting the patterns don’t exist in Earth biochemistry.
Previous Mars missions that included mass spectrometers ran into problems that hampered their ability to identify signs of life. Scientists took those hard-earned lessons and designed MOMA to overcome those hurdles, including one of the most troubling ones: the notorious molecule destroyer, perchlorate. Perchlorate, which also turns up in extreme Earth environments like South America’sAtacama Desert, can degrade organic molecules at high temperatures, obscuring potential signs of life.
In 2008, the Mars Phoenix lander discovered perchlorate ions in Mars soil. Two other missions, the Viking lander and the Curiosity rover, detected chlorinated hydrocarbons — possible byproducts of perchlorate reacting with Martian molecules in the high-temperature ovens of their mass spectrometers. This meant that perchlorate may have obscured any evidence of organic molecules that could indicate life.
MOMA cleverly circumvents the perchlorate problem with an ultraviolet laser. The laservaporizes and ionizes samples in one go, with pulses of light lasting under two nanoseconds — too quick for perchlorate reactions to occur.
The laser has another benefit: It leaves molecules largely intact when giving them a charge to create ions. Viking and Curiosity generated ions by bombarding them with electrons. Those collisions didn’t preserve weak chemical bonds that can be important for determining the structures of molecules in a sample, whereas the laser keeps molecule fragmentation to a minimum. MOMA can then sort those relatively intact ions and deliberately fragment a single ion of interest in isolation, something neither Viking nor Curiosity could do. By analyzing the resulting puzzle pieces of that ion, it’s possible to determine the chemical structure of the original molecule from the Martian sample and thus identify what it is.
It will be the first time this laser technique goes to Mars, but tests on Earth suggest it will work. The prototype found traces of organic molecules even in the presence of more perchlorate than Phoenix detected in Martian soil, Brinckerhoff says. And in Mars-like samples collected in Yellowstone National Park,it detected lipidsand other molecules that are more complex than ones picked up on previous Mars missions.
MOMA, like its predecessors, also has high-temperatureovensand scientists can still opt to use these instead of the laser to vaporize samples. If the laser turns up hints of amino acids, for instance, the oven option could provide information the laser cannot. When in oven mode, MOMA uses three chemical reagents that stabilize molecules to facilitate mass spectrometry. One of these, which has never before been used on Mars, is there to tell apart left- and right-handed amino acids, enabling it to make a case for living or nonliving origins in a way that prior missions could not.
MOMA won’t be the last word on whether life ever existed on Mars. Even the most tantalizing results would have to be confirmed by repeated experiments and lines of evidence from the rover’s other instruments, Vago says. Some confirmatory work also could take place through other missions or even someday from analysis of Mars samples brought back to Earth. “We will need to build a case, because otherwise nobody’s going to believe us,” Vago says.
The international team of scientists that has been working on the missionknows what they need to build that case, but until the Rosalind Franklin Rover lands on the Red Planet’s surface, they can’t get started. All of those scientists shared the disappointment in March 2022 of seeing the long-stalled mission delayed once again.
But for Brinckerhoff, that disappointment is tempered with excitement: After all, the mission is still alive. “This thing is the best of all of us,” he says, “and just to see it operate on Mars is going to be career catharsis.”
Carmen Drahlis a freelance journalist and editor based in Washington, DC. This article originally appeared inKnowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Read the original here.
What is the future mission to Mars? ›
The next missions expected to arrive at Mars are: The ExoMars program of ESA has delayed the launch of the Rosalind Franklin rover, until later in the 2020s. Mars Orbiter Mission 2 by India, planned launch in 2024.What is the longest mission to Mars? ›
Mars Sample Return
The 2001 Mars Odyssey mission is NASA's longest-lasting spacecraft at Mars. The spacecraft launched on April 7, 2001, and arrived at Mars on October 24, 2001, 0230 Universal Time (October 23, 7:30 pm PDT/10:30 EDT).
NASA aims to launch astronauts to Mars by the late 2030s or early 2040s. Making that vision a reality will be challenging. Assuming the funding and technology come into play at the right time, for example, the round-trip travel time would still be about 500 days given the distance between Earth and Mars.What is NASA's planned mission to send humans to Mars? ›
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is training four people to live on planet Mars this summer. While the endeavor to send humans to the neighbouring planet on the part of the US space agency is not new, the four 'Martians' will be part of NASA's human exploration expedition on Mars.What are the future Mars missions 2026? ›
Mars Ice Mapper, 2026
NASA plans to collaborate with the Japanese space agency (JAXA), Canadian Space Agency, and Italian Space Agency to send an orbiting craft to Mars to map out water ice resources on the planet.
A project to send humans to Mars by 2023 is now under way. But there is a caveat: it's a one-way mission. The astronauts will be chosen from around the world in an open competition, and the project will be financed by selling the rights to televise the entire mission in real time, from crew training to Mars landing.What was the failed mission on Mars? ›
The 1990s weren't particularly good for Mars landings, either. Russia's Mars 96 failed during launch. Happily, Nasa's Sojourner rover touched down in 1996, becoming the first Martian rover success story. Unfortunately, America's Mars Polar Lander failed just before touching down on the planet in 1999.How many missions to Mars have failed? ›
Out of a total of 12 landing attempts on the red planet from different space agencies, only eight have been successful- and all of these have been from NASA.How many years could a human mission to Mars take to complete? ›
With current technology, NASA calculations estimate a crewed mission to Mars and back, plus time on the surface, could take somewhere between two and three years.Will humans ever live on Mars? ›
Yet the fact remains that the astronauts will be unable to live on Mars except in very restricted conditions; they will have to stay inside their capsules, inside a base or inside their space suits. Mars is not suited to human visitors.
Can human survive in Mars? ›
Meanwhile, Mars has almost no oxygen; it's only one-tenth of one percent of the air, not nearly enough for humans to survive. If you tried to breathe on the surface of Mars without a spacesuit supplying your oxygen – bad idea – you would die in an instant.Has a man gone to Mars? ›
Dr. Schulte said that humans have not been to Mars in person, but NASA has sent plenty of spacecraft there in the past. He said, "In fact, we have two operating rovers on the surface of Mars right now.What year will humans go to Mars? ›
Several timelines for when the first humans will land on Mars have been planned. NASA is planning to land humans on Mars by the late 2030s or early 2040s, but Elon Musk's company, SpaceX, proposed that humanity could reach the Red Planet before the end of the 2020s.What is the mission to Mars 2025? ›
NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s – goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010.Who wants to send us to Mars? ›
Here's what the trip might look like. Even as SpaceX prepares to launch astronauts for the first time, the company is sharing its dreams for human spaceflight on a much grander scale: missions to Mars.What is 2030 in Mars? ›
MARS 2030 is a virtual reality simulation where players explore the Red Planet and make discoveries across 40 square kilometers of open Martian terrain, accurately-mapped and -modeled using NASA satellite data. Produced in collaboration with NASA.What is the most recent robotic mission to Mars? ›
On February 18, 2021, Perseverance, the newest American Mars rover, successfully landed.What would communication with Mars be like? ›
Typically, communication with Mars is done through a system known as the Deep Space Network (DSN). Essentially, it is a set of giant ground-based communication satellites spread worldwide. Their primary purpose is to communicate directly with every probe launched beyond Earth's orbit, including those surrounding Mars.Who will go to Mars in 2030? ›
Elon Musk's SpaceX COO says manned missions will reach Mars by 2030. NASA says otherwise. Elon Musk's company has set itself the ambitious task to make space travel accessible for humanity. Humanity could reach the Red Planet and the Moon sooner than we think.Is sending your name to Mars real? ›
What does submitting my name do? All submitted names are reviewed, approved and then etched onto a microchip. The microchip is placed aboard the Mars 2020 rover, which will land on Mars. If you are sending your name on a future mission to Mars, your flight has not been identified yet.
What is the biggest threat on Mars? ›
Radiation exposure in space will be a significant and serious hazard during any human expedition to Mars. There are two major sources of natural radiation in deep space: sparse but penetrating galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) and infrequent but very intense solar particle events (SPEs) associated with solar storms.Why has no one visited Mars? ›
So why haven't humans yet traveled to Mars? According to NASA, there are a number of obstacles that we still need to overcome before sending a human mission to the planet, including technological innovation and a better understanding of the human body, mind and how we might adapt to life on another planet.What is the biggest problem in Mars? ›
Difficulties and hazards include radiation exposure during a trip to Mars and on its surface, toxic soil, low gravity, the isolation that accompanies Mars' distance from Earth, a lack of water, and cold temperatures.What was the most successful Mars mission? ›
NASA's Opportunity rover was one of the most successful and enduring interplanetary missions. Opportunity landed on Mars in early 2004 soon after its twin rover Spirit. Opportunity operated almost 15 years, setting several records and making a number of key discoveries.How many times Russia failed to reach Mars? ›
The Soviet Union suffered a string of 10 failed Mars missions until finally, in 1971, the Mars 3 orbiter reached its destination.What is the cheapest Mars mission ever? ›
Mangalyaan was the cheapest Mars Mission in the world. India's first interplanetary mission Mangalyaan was developed at a budget of $74 million (₹450 crore), making it the cheapest Mars Mission in the world .Can a human go to Mars and come back? ›
A return mission to Mars will need to land a rocket to carry crew off the surface. Launch requirements mean that this rocket would be significantly smaller than an Earth-to-orbit rocket. Mars-to-orbit launch can also be achieved in single stage. Despite this, landing an ascent rocket on Mars will be difficult.How much fuel does it take to get to Mars? ›
The main reason is that it takes a whole lot of rocket fuel to send supplies and astronauts to Mars. Even in favorable scenarios where Earth and Mars line up every 26 months, a humans-to-Mars mission still requires 1,000 to 4,000 metric tons of propellant.How long would it take to get to Mars at the speed of light? ›
If you were to go to Mars using the speed of light, you would reach it in about three minutes at their closest possible approach. The speed of light is around 186,000 mi / 300,000 km per second.Which planet can human live on? ›
Flexi Says: Right now and for the foreseeable future, humans can only live on Earth. Humans have not traveled very far into space. The Moon is the only other place humans have visited. No other planet in our solar system currently has the conditions to support life as we know it on Earth.
How long could you survive on Mars without a space suit? ›
It's relatively cool with an average annual temperature of -60 degrees Celsius, but Mars lacks an Earth-like atmospheric pressure. Upon stepping on Mars' surface, you could probably survive for around two minutes before your organs ruptured.Which planet would you live on if you couldn t live on Earth? ›
Kepler 452b is located in the constellation Cygnus. It is 1,400 light-years away from Earth. I would choose Kepler 452b over other habitable planets for several reasons. There are signs that its surface holds a water-like substance.Why would blood boil on Mars? ›
For example, like Earth, Mars has seasons, meaning seasonal changes in its atmosphere and weather. But the Martian atmosphere is much thinner than Earth's, meaning atmospheric pressure is so low that the blood of any unprotected visitor would boil.Could humans live on Titan? ›
Potential for Life
Additionally, Titan's rivers, lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane might serve as a habitable environment on the moon's surface, though any life there would likely be very different from Earth's life.
He can quote the easy answer for why we go to Mars, the assumption most scientists and science writers make: Mars is close. It's practically right next door, and you can fling a robot there in half a year. “That's the NASA answer. It's the most accessible place for life other than on Earth.Why haven't we gone to the Moon again? ›
So why haven't astronauts been back to the moon in 50 years? "It was the political risks that prevented it from happening," Bridenstine said. "The program took too long and it costs too much money." Researchers and entrepreneurs have long pushed for the creation of a crewed base on the moon — a lunar space station.Why haven't we landed on the Moon again? ›
So, why haven't they sent humans back to the moon yet? The two primary causes are money and priorities. The race to put people on the moon was sparked in 1962 by US President John F. Kennedy's 'We Choose to Go to the Moon' address, in which he pledged that by the end of the decade, an American would walk on the moon'.Has any human been to Venus? ›
Yes, several landers from the former Soviet Union have landed on Venus. They were only able to send us information for a short time because the extremely high temperature and pressure on the surface of Venus melted and crushed the landers.How many planets can support human life? ›
Average number of planets with potential to support life.
Here we could take our own Solar System as an example. Three (Venus, Earth, and Mars) out of eight planets might be able to support life.
Training on the simulated martian terrain of Mars-500. Scientists have recently observed for the first time that, on an epigenetic level, astronauts age more slowly during long-term simulated space travel than they would have if their feet had been planted on Planet Earth.
Who was the first person on Earth? ›
Adam is the name given in Genesis 1-5 to the first human. Beyond its use as the name of the first man, adam is also used in the Bible as a pronoun, individually as "a human" and in a collective sense as "mankind".Will SpaceX go to Mars? ›
As of 2023, SpaceX is developing the Starship system with a fully-reusable two-stage launch vehicle, intended to replace all of its other launch vehicles and spacecraft for satellite delivery and human transport—Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon—and eventually support flights to the Moon and Mars.When Mars will end? ›
Steer clear of catty debates that lead nowhere! Mars retrograde begins on October 30 and ends on January 12, 2023. When Mars finally comes to an end at 8 degrees Gemini, it will be a moment of deepened intimacy and emotional transformation.Is Mars 2030 free? ›
Mars 2030 Editor | Download and Play for Free - Epic Games Store.What's the human population on Mars? ›
Summary Currently the (human) population of Mars is 0 as there are no human habitats or colonies present there. Summary The Red Planet is home to three rovers, one lander, and a helicopter operating on Mars, each with its own unique job.What companies are trying to colonize Mars? ›
Two startup space companies in California, Relativity Space and Impulse Space, announced today (July 19) that they are teaming up to launch the first commercial mission to Mars in 2024, years before the first potential trip by the more established SpaceX, which is known for its long-term plans to establish a human ...What are the future plans for Mars? ›
The next missions expected to arrive at Mars are: The ExoMars program of ESA has delayed the launch of the Rosalind Franklin rover, until later in the 2020s. Mars Orbiter Mission 2 by India, planned launch in 2024.Who is going to Mars in 2024? ›
Two startup space companies in California, Relativity Space and Impulse Space, announced today (July 19) that they are teaming up to launch the first commercial mission to Mars in 2024, years before the first potential trip by the more established SpaceX, which is known for its long-term plans to establish a human ...What is the future of Mars 2050? ›
In 2050, there could be hundreds or perhaps even thousands of people in the first city on Mars. And thousands more could be transported to Mars every two years. This Mars city will likely start off with a team of scientists, researchers, and robotics engineers.What year will the mission to Mars be? ›
In 1969, Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 completed the first dual mission to Mars, flying by over the equator and south polar regions and analyzing the Martian atmosphere and surface with remote sensors, as well as recording and relaying hundreds of pictures.
Is Mars 1 still happening? ›
Much has been said about Mars One over the years, with some questioning whether the whole thing was a scam from the outset, or if the people behind it were simply naïve about the challenges of going to Mars. Whatever the truth, the saga is over now.Can humans live on Mars in the future? ›
The answer seems to be “it's possible”. Many scientists consider Mars and Earth twins because of the similarities between the planets. But they aren't entirely alike. Some challenges would need to be overcome before humans could start calling Mars home.Can Elon Musk go to Mars? ›
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said he may join the first colonists on Mars. Before that happens, though, his Starship needs to complete its maiden orbital flight. Before SpaceX's Starship has even completed its first orbital flight successfully, Elon Musk is already dreaming of joining its maiden voyage to Mars.Will Mars be habitable in the future? ›
Scientists want to know the duration of the habitable period; the longer it was, the more time there would have been for any potential Martian life to form. The new work extends the potentially habitable period on Mars by about 500 million years, into the late Hesperian age.What will Mars look like in 1,000 years? ›
Over the 1,000 year period Mars will be turned from a vast desert with a coral sky into a bountiful planet full of life with a beautiful blue sky. It may look similar to Earth, but the inhabitants will become truly Martian.What year will Mars be terraformed? ›
Depending on whom you talk to, terraforming could take anywhere from 50 years to 100 million years to complete. The surface might one day look like our own Earth.How much would a human Mars mission cost? ›
Transportation costs alone could total over $100 billion before the first Mars mission in 2035. A ballpark cost of the first Mars mission in 2035 would total $230 billion. Second and subsequent missions, occurring at three-year intervals, would cost about $142 billion each including SLS and Orion costs.How long would a Mars mission last? ›
The trip to Mars will take about seven months and about 300 million miles (480 million kilometers). During that journey, engineers have several opportunities to adjust the spacecraft's flight path, to make sure its speed and direction are best for arrival at Jezero Crater on Mars.Is China planning on going to Mars? ›
Chinese officials at a desert rocket base described plans for their new space station and for reusable rockets, as well as travel beyond near-Earth orbit.Why did Mars 3 fail? ›
“The best explanation seems to be that because of the planet-wide dust storm and the very thin atmosphere — what may have happened is a short circuit in the electronics.” The planet-wide dust storm would further frustrate the Soviets by ruining the Mars 2 and 3 orbiter missions.
What happened to Mars 96? ›
The Mars 96 spacecraft was launched into Earth orbit, but failed to achieve insertion into Mars cruise trajectory and re-entered the Earth's atmosphere at about 00:45 to 01:30 UT on 17 November 1996 and crashed within a presumed 320 km by 80 km area which includes parts of the Pacific Ocean, Chile, and Bolivia.