This week, a human-made lander on Mars did a very human thing – it died. At the same time, a human-created rover on Mars did another very human thing – it left trash receptacles on the ground for someone else to pick up … maybe space sanitation engineers? Are we preparing Mars for colonization by making it look more like Earth with cemeteries, trash collections and landfills?
“I feel sad, but I also feel pretty good. We’ve been expecting this to come to an end for some time. I think that it’s been a great run.”
Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, eulogized the Mars InSight spacecraft for The New York Times. The four-and-a-half years old (20 in human years?) lander spent its entire time on Mars in the Elysium Planitia near the planet’s equator in the northern hemisphere. The Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations lander used its time to take seismological measurements of marsquakes in an effort to get a better idea of the planet’s structure, composition and geological history. InSight was working right up until the end … in May, it measured its strongest marsquake ever - 4.7-magnitude. Unfortunately, the stress of living on Mars was too much for InSight – particularly dealing with the dust. (Check out its dust-covered photo above.) While allergies were not the problem, buildup on its solar panels was and InSight was declared battery-dead (space engineers refer to it as a “dead bus”) by NASA. InSight’s screen at mission control was surrounded by mission members and friends on its last day.
“I watched the launch and landing of this mission, and while saying goodbye to a spacecraft is always sad, the fascinating science InSight conducted is cause for celebration.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, made a moving statement at the wake. Since it is above ground, the lander will be its own grave marker in its Martian cemetery. Gather dust in peace, InSight.
Meanwhile, in the Jezero crater, another very human habit is occurring on Mars.
“A titanium tube containing a rock sample is resting on the Red Planet’s surface after being placed there on Dec. 21 by NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. Over the next two months, the rover will deposit a total of 10 tubes at the location, called “Three Forks,” building humanity’s first sample depot on another planet. The depot marks a historic early step in the Mars Sample Return campaign.”
The Perseverance rover was sent to Mars to carry the small robotic helicopter Ingenuity and to travel about digging with its robotic arm into the Martian surface in places that look interesting to the mission managers back on Earth. The primary plan is for another rover/lander/spacecraft to one day land on Mars, find Perseverance, empty the contents of its sample storage compartment, blast off into a Martian orbit, where it will meet another spacecraft and hand it the samples … whereupon that spacecraft will leave Martian orbit and return them to Earth where they will become the first Martian soil samples to be studied by humans.
What could possibly go wrong?
If you’ve been paying attention … quite a bit. That is why the Mars Sample Return campaign has a backup plan in case Perseverance dies like InSight before it can complete its mission. So, in addition to the 17 samples in its interior storage container for handing off to the return mission spacecraft, Perseverance has 10 titanium tubes it has also been filling with soil samples. The rover then sealed the tubes (that robotic arm must have huge biceps by now) and placed them in a carrier. Perseverance is now looking for suitable locations to drop these tubes on the surface where they could be picked up by a pair of Sample Recovery Helicopters dispatched from the Mars Sample Return lander.
Does that sound an awful lot like a Martian version of Earth trash collection to you? What could possibly go wrong?
“Perseverance’s complex Sampling and Caching System took almost an hour to retrieve the metal tube from inside the rover’s belly, view it one last time with its internal CacheCam, and drop the sample roughly 3 feet (89 centimeters) onto a carefully selected patch of Martian surface.”
A video of what looks an awful lot like what your dog does on its walks can be seen here. On Earth, the pet owner would then reach down with a scooper and place the dropping in a plastic bag. On Mars, Perseverance also has more things to do with the help of its “owners” back in mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Once they confirmed the tube had dropped, the team positioned the WATSON camera located at the end of Perseverance’s 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm to peer beneath the rover and check to make sure the tube hadn’t rolled under a wheel or in the path of one. They also made sure that the titanium tube did not land on an end and get stuck standing in the soil. This would make it difficult for the Sample Recovery Helicopters to grab onto the flat end piece or “glove” for pickup. It the tube is standing vertical, Perseverance will use the turret at the end of its robotic arm to carefully knock it over.
When will the trash collecting mission be sent to Mars to pick up the cans filled by Perseverance? A reasonable guess is not until the 2030s, which is why these are really more like trash containers than those old-fashioned office pneumatic tubes or Amazon packages. Those get icked up right away. Martians will be looking at these containers left by Earthlings for at least a decade and wondering how else this messy species will garbage up their pristine planet.
Perseverance knows how this writer thinks its mission looks, but it doesn’t care because it doesn’t want to end up like InSight. It turns out the primary mission of Perseverance is scheduled to end January 6, 2023 – just about two years after it landed. Fortunately, NASA extended its mission so it can continue to drop tubes, search for more signs of ancient life and keep tabs on the Ingenuity helicopter, which has also exceeded its planned lifespan.
Could NASA be testing some kind of artificial intelligence on Perseverance and Ingenuity to see how they respond to seeing the death of one of their fellow spacecrafts? Is this making them work harder? Will this motivate future astronauts to do the same?
For now, it still looks like we’re turning Mars into a graveyard and a trash bin.