Opinion: The Perseverance rover landing on Mars is a giant leap toward human colonization of space – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Posted: March 3, 2021 at 1:47 am

Thiemens is a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Chancellors Associates chair, and former dean of the Division of Physical Sciences at UC San Diego. He lives in North County.

Near high noon local time on Thursday, Feb., 18, the Perseverance spacecraft landed on the surface of Mars. The landing sequence was accompanied by some of the most astounding and breathtaking photography of a space landing ever taken. It happened that the time of landing was during a lecture for my upper-level environmental chemistry course at UC San Diego. The course is not restricted to Earths environment and has included Mars. Since it was timely, I livestreamed the landing and whats known as the seven minutes of terror to the class.

Perseverance in many ways is unique and, given the incredible array of space missions, it has a high bar. The landing was in an optimal site for the search for life, a mission focus of Perseverance. As NASA planned, it touched down in the 30-mile-wide, approximately 3.8-billion-year-old Jezero Crater. This site was chosen especially for its potential for life. It is deep, with delta-like drainage features and observed minerals associated with the activity of water which should be directed towards the crater bottom.

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As we discussed in class, the craft carries a full arsenal of analytical instruments to search for life on Mars from a multitude of perspectives. For the first time, there is the capability to drill and collect deeper Mars samples where life may be. Equally important is that it will establish a sample cache depot, where the samples will be left for future astronaut return missions, another first and clearly planned for humankinds deep exploration of space. The examination of Mars in this mission also achieves another first with the inclusion of the Ingenuity helicopter. The flights of Ingenuity will search for new notable geological features as well as provide road maps for future rovers and missions.

What occurred to me while describing the experiments on board Perseverance was that the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, earmarked the mission in another special way. The experiment is constructed to convert carbon dioxide, the major component of the Martian atmosphere, to oxygen. The purpose is to prepare oxygen for human consumption and as a propellant to prepare for human habitation on Mars. In some ways, this highlights the fact that our expansion to inhabit space is very clearly underway, and this is a significant step. The Artemis project, scheduled to launch in 2024 and land the first woman and next man at the lunar South Pole, is the beginning of the first permanent station on the moon. It will develop the knowledge, experience and technology to expand our presence to Mars. NASA, along with an international group including Canada, Europe, the United Kingdom, Japan, Brazil, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine and Australia, and private corporations and universities, will collaborate on this expansion of human existence from Earth.

In describing and pondering these recent activities from the perspective of watching Sputnik, Apollo and space missions, flying my own rocket atmospheric samplers, measuring moonrocks and meteorites (including Martian ones) for more than 40 years, and learning of Artemis during my tenure on the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences it is staggering that so much can occur across our planet in less than a lifetime.

In 1976, Gerard K. ONeill wrote in The High Frontier that a post-Apollo road map to colonization of space involved the gravitationally stable L-4 and L-5 points, 60 degrees ahead of and 60 degrees behind the Moon in its orbit around the Earth. In 1979, Gov. Jerry Brown provided funds for creation of the University of Californias California Space Institute. This was a broad multi-campus organization to develop all aspects of space science, exploration and technology, including space inhabitation. Its founder was my former colleague James Arnold, the first chair and founder of our Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UC San Diego, who was instrumental in creating NASAs lunar sample facility and research. He directed Calspace for 10 years and recruited Sally Ride to become the next director and a professor in the Department of Physics and the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences. These efforts seemed in the far future at the the time but very much justified and prescient.

With widespread international collaborations between countries, corporations and universities, there is an acceleration of space science and technologies. The students in the classroom today may very well be among the first citizens of Mars.

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Opinion: The Perseverance rover landing on Mars is a giant leap toward human colonization of space - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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