This past year has been wave after wave of bad news. As an environmental science major, good news hasn’t typically been very high on my radar. The awe and wonder of science from my childhood has now been replaced with fear and trembling about the existential threat of climate change, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. When planning this column, I envisioned a focus on the big issues that are at the forefront of my mind day in and day out. Upon further inspection, I came to the realization that this may not be what we want—or need—right now. As such, I want to use this space to focus on something positive happening in the world of science and technology. I believe that we are in great need of distinct spaces where hope for the future may flourish. I hope that this column can be one of those spaces.
For my first week in the “Good News” from Science & Technology column, I would like to highlight the Mars Perseverance rover. A rover is a small vehicle designed for the purpose of moving across planetary surfaces for the purposes of exploration and data collection. NASA announced back in March 2020 that the new rover would be named Perseverance which was submitted to NASA’s “Name the Rover” essay contest by seventh grader Alexander Mather. Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, commented on the name in a press release from NASA, saying, “Alex’s entry captured the spirit of exploration. Like every exploration mission before, our rover is going to face challenges, and it’s going to make amazing discoveries… That inspiring work will always require perseverance. We can’t wait to see that nameplate on Mars.” Just weeks after NASA announced the name of the new Martian rover, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed its full scale. Perseverance is the perfect name for this feat of science and exploration in the chaos of 2020.
Perseverance launched on July 30, 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The estimated landing date on Mars is February 18, 2021. The primary work of the rover will be to “seek signs of ancient life and to collect samples of rock and soil for a possible return to earth.” More notable than Perseverance itself is what it is carrying with it to Mars: a helicopter called Ingenuity. Ingenuity will be attempting the first-ever powered flight on another planet. Flying requires far more power on Mars than on Earth because Mars’ atmosphere has less than 1% of the density of Earth’s atmosphere. Since atmospheric density is directly proportional to lift (the mechanical aerodynamic force that makes flight possible), the lower the atmospheric density, the less lift the aircraft will be capable of, and the more difficult flight becomes. Ingenuity will provide not only aerial vantage points for study of the Martian terrain but also information about terrestrial flight on Mars, which will be key in preparing for the first crewed mission to Mars taking place in the next decade.
While it may seem trivial to be excited about sending a tiny helicopter to Mars in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, we should care about this mission because Perseverance gives us an opportunity to hope for a future in which science is about exploration instead of survival. We can hope that life will go on, that humanity will progress, that one day someone will set foot on alien soil. I believe that the perseverance of humankind through calamity is due partially to the God-given gift of our capacity to dream. When Perseverance lands on the surface of the red planet in February, it will be an occasion for all of us to celebrate a victory of human tenacity and triumph.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Wheaton Record or Wheaton College.