If all goes well, then at 3:00 p.m. EST time today NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will land on Mars. The target location for touchdown is the 30-mile diameter Jezero Crater. Jezero Crater was chosen because it once was flooded with water, and there is evidence of clays present in the soil from this flooding. Planetary scientists think that if life once existed on Mars, evidence of that life might still reside in those clays. The Mars 2020 mission has two components. The Perseverance rover carries a suite of instruments to measure properties of the Martian surface and to look for traces of ice and any biological signatures in the soil. Perseverance will take rock core and soil samples from various locations in Jezero Crater. The most promising samples will be stored for possible retrieval during a subsequent mission that will return them to earth.
While most scientific attention will be dedicated to Perseverance, the public is sure to be more fascinated with Ingenuity. Ingenuity is a small helicopter that will make several short flights near the landing site. The purpose of Ingenuity is to test the feasibility of exploring the Martian surface from low altitude drones on future missions. If the tests prove successful, then it is likely that in the years ahead many missions to Mars will include more sophisticated drones.
The two other missions to Mars this year arrived at the Red Planet last week. The first to launch and reach Martian orbit was the United Arab Emirates Space Agency’s Hope. Hope is an orbiter dedicated to detailed study of daily and seasonal Martian weather cycles. Some are calling Hope the first true Martian weather satellite. The second to launch and arrive was China’s Tianwen-1. Tianwen-1 will orbit Mars for two months to survey the intended target of its lander. The lander is scheduled to deploy on the Martian surface in May. The lander includes a rover, making China the second country to send a rover to Mars. The orbiter will act as a relay for the rover, but it will continue to study Mars. Tianwen-1 is focused on studying the geology of Mars.
You may wonder why all three missions arrived about the same time. Mars is well positioned to send missions to it every 26 months. All three spacecraft were launched last summer, and it took more than six months to make the trek. The next launch window for Mars is late next year.
The evolutionary worldview requires that life not be unique to the earth. Otherwise, the earth would be very special, which suggests creation.
What will these missions find? These things are impossible to predict. However, let me offer my broad prediction. First, why all the attention to Mars? More than any planet in the solar system, the surface of Mars resembles the earth’s surface. While the thin atmosphere and cold temperatures of Mars are hostile to life today, there is good evidence that Mars once was wetter and warmer than it is today. Hence, more than any place in the solar system, Mars holds the most promise for life, if not now, perhaps in the distant past. The evolutionary worldview requires that life not be unique to the earth. Otherwise, the earth would be very special, which suggests creation. Therefore, the hope is that eventually we will find evidence that life, even primitive life, once existed on Mars. However, special creation leads to the conclusion that life is unique in many ways, but especially in the one place in the universe where there is life. Hence, I expect all tests for the existence of life on Mars to be negative.