In one of his Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury brings to life a family, tragically killed in a nuclear holocaust, through their domestic robots. The father’s, the mother’s, and the children’s bodies remain in the house as white silhouettes painted on a charred wall. In the still standing wing of the house, smart appliances continue the daily chores —as if time has not stopped for them.
In Bradbury’s extraordinary story, There Will Come Soft Rains, household machines talk, give orders, make breakfast, clean the furniture, and prepare the children’s bath. The extinguished humans’ habits have transcended through them.
The house of that story resembles Mars today: a habitat of machines carrying our identity, our curious mind, our will to modify the extraterrestrial landscape into our image and likeness, our longing to know if life is exclusive to Earth or if there are other occurrences in the universe. In short, to fulfil our desires.
Many different space agencies and companies created and operate these robots. Among others: NASA, the European Space Agency, the UK Space Agency, and the Russian Roscosmos. Despite that diversity, all of them have one thing in common: they are scientists. Or, more precisely: they are scientists’ assistants.
They represent a humanity that escaped Earth to conquer other solar system planets —in an era powered by science.
The remote-controlled Martian colonization race
The first human-made object to reach the surface of Mars was the Russian rover Mars 2. Launched in 1971, after its triumphal entry to the Martian atmosphere, the descent sequence failed and the rover crashed. That vestige was our first contribution to the interplanetary junkyard —a testimony that the Soviet Union existed on Earth.
In 1976, NASA successfully landed the Viking 1 and 2 robots. Their small laboratories, destined to study Mars weather and geology, operated until the early 1980s. After that, they have been posing as sculptures, waiting for an interplanetary explorer to recognizes them.
Later on, the Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity successfully made their appearance on the Martian landscape. All of them from NASA, whose engineers mastered the art of landing on Mars. Still a difficult task for the European Space Agency, which a couple of years ago, after hours of stress amplified in social media, crashed the ExoMars mission Schiaparelli descent module.
Small steps for rovers, big steps for humanity
Perseverance’s new NASA rover started its journey to Mars at the end of July this year. What makes it different from its predecessors? She will identify, extract, and separate portions of rocks and soil, which will await a future bold mission to bring them to Earth. This way, scientists will accomplish more detailed and varied studies of the red planet.
Perseverance will search for footprints of possible Martian life forms in a remote past. But, how do scientists recognize past life on a dead planet?
Paleontologists look for specific patterns, remains of elements, and organic molecules that microbes typically leave in rocks, unlikely to be found without life’s presence.
Perseverance also will test a method of producing oxygen in the Martian atmosphere and identify resources that can be exploited for future human colonizers.
The technological novelty of this mission is Ingenuity, a helicopter drone in charge of mapping the ground at a low altitude while performing the first operational tests of this type of vehicle on Mars. It will plan travel routes, assess risks, and identify points of interest for its rover.
Due to the Covid19 pandemic, The European Space Agency has had to postpone the launch of its rover astrobiologist, Rosalind Franklin, for the summer of 2022. Its name pays tribute to the famous British chemist whose work revealed the DNA structure, a breakthrough in understanding life as we know it on Earth.
These new missions will increase the population of Martian robots. Upon arrival, astrobiologist Curiosity, and geologist Insight, will be still in operations. All these artifacts, lacking biological life, participate in a race to be the first to answer the big question: Is there life outside of Earth?
Original work was published in Spanish: https://www.eltiempo.com/vida/ciencia/cuales-son-las-misiones-que-han-explorado-el-planeta-marte-515656