Perseverance’s touchdown on Mars a chicken-skin moment for Big Isle astronomers

  • Rodrigo Romo, director of The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems. (File photo)

  • Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Executive Director Doug Simons. (Courtesy photo)

  • John O’Meara

  • Peter Michaud, Gemini Observatory public information and outreach manager. (Tribune-Herald file photo)

  • In this illustration made available by NASA, the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover studies a Mars rock outrcrop. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

After nearly seven months of waiting and a nail-biting 10 minutes on Thursday, NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover successfully touched down on the Red Planet.

Mission control operators cheered, elated, after the $2.7 billion rover signaled its safe arrival on Mars, a sentiment shared by members of the astronomy community on the Big Island.

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“It hearkened back to watching earlier Mars missions when I was young,” said Peter Michaud, public information and outreach manager for the Gemini Observatory. “Those were really what inspired me to work in astronomy in the first place, watching the scientists’ reactions.”

“Moments like these are one of those few moments not related to my family that bring me to tears,” said John O’Meara, chief scientist at W. M. Keck Observatory. “I admit I got a little misty-eyed watching it.”

The successful arrival of the rover represents the culmination of not only a seven-month journey through space, but hundreds of thousands of man-hours to develop a system capable of effectively delivering itself to Mars without real-time input from humans on Earth.

O’Meara pointed out that, because of the distance between Earth and Mars on Thursday, any signal between the two planets would take a little over 11 minutes, making direct control of the landing impossible.

“So when they got the notification that it had entered the atmosphere, it had already been on the ground for like four minutes,” O’Meara said. “We just didn’t know what condition it was in.”

Two of the hundreds of people who helped develop the myriad systems of Perseverance are from the Big Island: Hilo resident Heather Bottom, who worked on rover operations during the launch and flight phases, and Aaron Roth, son of Mayor Mitch Roth, who helped develop communication tools for the rover and will work on sending and receiving messages to and from the vehicle now that it has landed.

“This hits really close to home,” said Rodrigo Romo, director of The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, a state-funded aerospace agency in Hilo, which once employed the younger Roth as an intern. “It’s really exciting, what’s happening in the aerospace industry.”

Neither Bottom nor Roth were available for comment, although Romo said the two have likely been on “Mars time” — having synced their days to match the Martian schedule — for several days now and are no doubt extremely busy.

With the rover safely on the Martian surface, it soon will begin its tasks, which include the deployment of a helicopter-like drone called Ingenuity that will attempt to carry out the first powered flight on Mars.

“That will be a huge step forward for future Mars surveys,” said Doug Simons, executive director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. “You can imagine what that will do. If you can land something in one place and then fly it to another, we’ll be able to cover so much more.”

The rover also will encapsulate samples of Martian soil that will be left for a future rover to collect. That rover will attempt to launch itself from Mars back to Earth with the samples — another unprecedented feat.

“The thing about NASA, they don’t really repeat themselves,” Simons said. “They’re always bootstrapping something new onto the results of their previous projects.”

While the missions of the Maunakea Observatories and the Perseverance rover have drastically different scopes — the observatories rarely observe planets as close as Mars — the results of Perseverance’s mission will have implications for the future of astronomy.

“I guarantee if (signs of life) are detected, it will change how we look for life through our telescopes,” O’Meara said, explaining that verifying there is or was life on Mars could lead to certain signatures in the Martian atmosphere being identified as an indicator of life on more distant planets.

Ultimately, the questions Perseverance seeks to answer are the same fundamental questions about existence that have dogged humanity for millennia which science has yet to answer, such as the origins of life itself.

“Science still does not understand how molecules can spontaneously organize themselves into something with life,” Simons said. “If we discover that it happened on two planets, then it may be much more common than we thought.”

Simons said other places within our solar system might also harbor signs of ancient life: the frozen oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are thought to be ideal environments for the development of life, while last year, the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope helped discover phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus, which may be an indication of life.

Simons added that, one day, instruments like Perseverance will help determine whether microbes can survive the depth of space, and travel between planets or even solar systems.

But even if it doesn’t, the feats of engineering involved in Perseverance’s landing alone are inspiring enough.

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“It’s a reminder that, when we put our minds together, we can still do great things in America,” Simons said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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