Student View

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ESS1.B

CCSS: Writing: 3

TEKS: Science: 3.8D, 4.2A, 5.7B, 6.11A; ELA: 3.12A, 4.12A, 5.12A, 6.11A

Mission to Mars!

A new rover heads to the Red Planet to search for signs of alien life

NASA/JPL/Caltech

As you read, think about what questions you would investigate if you were planning a mission to Mars.

Does life exist outside of Earth? Humans have been asking this question for centuries. We might soon have an answer—thanks to a new rover expected to land on Mars this month!

The car-sized vehicle is called Perseverance. It’s the fifth rover the U.S. space agency NASA has sent to the Red Planet since 1997. Perseverance contains high-tech instruments to collect rocks and soil and look for signs of past life. 

NASA plans to eventually fly those samples to Earth to study. The research could reveal whether living organisms have ever existed on Mars—and whether they’re still there today. “We’ll have the opportunity to answer questions that we’ve been asking for a long time,” says Ken Farley, a lead scientist with the mission.

Does life exist beyond Earth? Humans have been asking this question for centuries. And we might soon have an answer. That’s thanks to a new rover. This car-sized vehicle should be landing on Mars this month!

The rover is called Perseverance. It was built by the U.S. space agency, NASA. Perseverance is the fifth rover NASA has sent to Mars since 1997. The rover’s mission is to look for signs of ancient life on the planet. 

The rover contains high-tech devices. They’ll collect rocks and soil. NASA plans to return those samples to Earth. There, scientists can study them. That research could reveal whether living things ever existed on Mars. It could also show if they’re still there today. “We’ll have the opportunity to answer questions that we’ve been asking for a long time,” says Ken Farley. He’s a lead scientist with the mission. 

Barren Land

Conditions on Mars are far more extreme than those on Earth. The average temperature is a bone-chilling -63°C (-81°F). The atmosphere contains mostly carbon dioxide gas, making the air unbreathable for humans. There’s no water on the planet’s surface. Mars also receives large amounts of radiation from the sun. This powerful energy can damage living and nonliving things. “If you could put food on Mars, it would be baked beyond recognition,” says Tanja Bosak. She’s a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s part of the mission. 

But evidence suggests that 3.5 billion years ago, the planet was much different. For one, it was warmer. Rivers snaked along the surface and poured into lakes. Rain probably fell from the sky. Scientists think that tiny organisms called microbes could have thrived in these conditions. To find out, the Perseverance rover will explore an area that was once a lake called Jezero Crater (see Exploring Mars). 

Conditions on Mars are far more extreme than those on Earth. The average temperature is a bone-chilling -63°C (-81°F). The atmosphere is thinner. It contains mostly carbon dioxide gas. That means humans can’t breathe the air. There’s no water on the planet’s surface. 

Mars also has high levels of radiation. The sun produces this powerful energy. It can damage living and nonliving things. “If you could put food on Mars, it would be baked beyond recognition,” says Tanja Bosak. She’s a scientist for the mission. She works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

On Earth, microbes form a slimy layer at the bottom of lakes. They clump together with sediments and eventually die. Over time, the microbes and sediments form large rocky structures. Perseverance will use cameras to look for similar structures on Mars. It will use other instruments to determine what the rocks are made of. 

Back on Earth, Bosak and other scientists will analyze Perseverance’s photos and monitor what the rover finds. If they think a rock looks promising, they will direct the rover to investigate it.

But evidence suggests Mars wasn’t always this way. It was probably warmer 3.5 billion years ago. Rivers ran along its surface. They poured into lakes. Rain probably fell from the sky. Scientists think tiny creatures called microbes may have lived on the planet. Perseverance will try and find out. It will explore an area called Jezero Crater. It once was a lake (see Exploring Mars). 

Microbes live at the bottoms of lakes on Earth. They form a slimy layer. They clump together with sediments and eventually die. Over time, the material forms large rocky structures. This takes a long time. Perseverance will use cameras. It will look for similar features on Mars.

Bosak and other scientists will look at the rover’s photos. They might spot an interesting rock. They’ll guide the rover to take a closer look. The rover will use other tools. They’ll analyze what the rocks are made of.

Precious Rocks

Perseverance can analyze rocks in many ways. One instrument can search rocks for organic compounds. These substances make up living organisms on Earth. Another instrument will search for patterns in the rock that look like cells from microbes. These pieces of evidence would suggest that organisms once lived in the ancient lake. But in order to be sure, scientists need to analyze the rocks in labs on Earth. “To really look for life, you need a lot of different lab equipment,” Bosak says.

That’s why Perseverance also contains a drill. The rover will use the drill to collect at least 20 rock samples the size of a piece of chalk. It will seal the samples inside tubes and store them in its belly.

Perseverance isn’t designed to return to Earth. Scientists plan to send another spacecraft to Mars to pick up the rover’s samples and fly them home. But that will take time. “The earliest the samples could come back is 2031,” says Farley.

Perseverance can study rocks in many ways. One of its devices looks for organic compounds. These chemicals make up living things on Earth. Another device will look for patterns in rock. It’s searching for ones shaped like microbe cells. These clues could show Mars was once home to living things. Scientists need to study the rocks themselves to be sure. “To really look for life, you need a lot of different lab equipment,” Bosak says. 

That’s why Perseverance also has a drill. The rover will collect at least 20 rock samples. Each sample will as big as a piece of chalk. The rover will seal the samples inside tubes and store them.

Perseverance isn’t designed to return to Earth. Scientists plan to send another spacecraft to Mars. It will pick up the rover’s samples. Then it will fly them home. But that will take time. “The earliest the samples could come back is 2031,” says Farley.

Understanding Mars

Even if Perseverance can’t detect signs of ancient life, its findings could help answer other important questions about Mars. For example, when exactly did a lake exist in Jezero Crater? And why did it disappear?

During its mission, the rover will also perform tests and measurements to pave the way for future human trips to the Red Planet. One instrument will try to turn carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into oxygen that humans could breathe. Perseverance will also analyze Martian dust to see if it would be harmful to people.

Finally, the rover will launch a softball-sized helicopter to test if it can fly through the air, which is much thinner than Earth’s. That experiment will help scientists build drones that could fly across Mars to explore.

It could take until April for Perseverance to begin collecting data. First, NASA has to make sure all the instruments work. Scientists like Bosak are excited about what the rover will reveal about life on Mars—and Earth. “By looking at Mars, we end up learning so much about our own planet and how unique it is,” she says.

Perseverance may not find signs of life on Mars. If it doesn’t, it could still help answer other important questions. For example, when did a lake exist in Jezero Crater? And why did it dry up?

The rover will do other tests during its mission. They will pave the way for future human trips to Mars. One device will try to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. That’s the gas humans breathe. The rover will also study dust on Mars. The dust could be harmful to people.

Finally, the rover will launch a helicopter. It’s the size of a softball. Scientist want to see if it can fly in the planet’s atmosphere. That will help them design future drones. The aircraft could someday explore Mars.

Perseverance may not start collecting data until April. NASA has to first test the rover. Scientists like Bosak are excited. The mission could reveal a lot about life on Mars. It could also tell us more about life on Earth. “By looking at Mars, we end up learning so much about our own planet and how unique it is,” she says.

What do you think?
Do you think the Perseverance rover will find signs of ancient life on Mars?
Please make a selection. Sorry! You have reached the vote limit of 100 votes. Sorry! You have reached the vote limit of 500 votes.
Voting has ended. See final results below.
Results
What does your class think?
Do you think the Perseverance rover will find signs of ancient life on Mars?
Sorry, please make sure that the total number of votes is between 1-40. Sorry! You have reached the vote limit of 200 votes. Please vote for at least one
Voting has ended. See final results below.
Results

Teachers: poll your class, then type the total number of answers in the boxes and click “Cast Your Vote.”

Teachers: poll your class, then type the total number of answers in the boxes and click “Cast Your Vote.”

Back to top
videos (1)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Slideshows (1)
Lesson Plan (2)
Lesson Plan (2)
Leveled Articles (1)