Was ancient Mars habitable? Was there once life on Mars? These are two of the questions scientists hope to get closer to answering with NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, scheduled to land on the Red Planet on February 18. For the first time, samples will be collected from Mars and brought to Earth. The details of the mission and its significance were presented on February 12 in a Faculty Forum Online webinar by MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Science (EAPS) professors Tanja Bosak and Ben Weiss, investigators for the mission and members of the 10-person Mars Sample Return team.
“One of the leading ideas of why Mars may have lost its atmosphere is that it may be related to the loss of protection from the end of the early magnetic field,” explains Weiss, who discusses, in this recording of the webinar, the route that the Perseverance rover aims to travel in order to obtain a diversity of samples.
“These incredibly old samples allow us to even ask what this prebiotic route to life may have been,” adds Bosak. “Maybe there were some reactions happening on the surface of Mars and Earth as well, so by sampling Mars we can actually be able to see how life came to be on Earth as well.”
Bosak and Weiss are chairs, respectively, of the EAPS programs in geology, geochemistry, and geobiology and in planetary sciences. The pair, who are married, also take turns answering questions from the online audience of MIT alumni about funding for the Mars Sample Return, protection from potential contamination of samples, the analytical and measurement capability of the rover itself, and how the sample sites were chosen.