Are we alone? UCPH researchers hold their breath ahead of Mars landing

Traces of prehistoric life will be the ultimate goal as the NASA rover Perseverance lands on Mars tonight. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen have contributed several important elements to the mission.

If all goes as planned, NASA’s space vehicle Perseverance will touchdown on Mars Thursday night in the agency’s most ambitious mission to date. The mission’s primary task is to look for traces of life and in doing so, address one of the most fundamental questions in human history: Are we alone?

“The ultimate goal is to find traces of microscopic life that may have been present on Mars early in the planet’s history. If there was ever life on Mars, there’s a good chance that the samples from this mission will let us know. This is an extraordinarily exciting time,” says Morten Bo Madsen, a physicist and associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute.

Together with other researchers and technicians from the University of Copenhagen, Morten Bo Madsen has contributed to several of the rover’s instruments which make this mission possible.

An important part of the rover’s eyes

The rover will collect a series of samples from Mars’ surface. These samples will be brought back to Earth during a follow-up mission. Upon their return, detailed analyses of these samples will reveal traces of past life, as well as bring a wealth of other knowledge about Mars, and planetary evolution more generally.

To assist with reconnaissance and selecting where the samples will be gathered and to document the sampling, the rover will use, among other things, a stereo imagery camera called the Mastcam-Z, as well as the SuperCam, a laser-based instrument that can determine the elemental composition of sand, rocks and cliffs.

The Mastcam-Z camera and SuperCam both require unique calibration devices that allow for the adjustment of color balance, so that the color characteristics of the surface can be separated from the lighting (in both infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light).

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