An art installation of Mars by artist Luke Jerram is suspended from the Museum’s Hintze Hall CREDIT Trustee’s of the Natural History Museum

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Museum scientists play key part in pioneering NASA mission as the search for life on Mars begins

NASA’s Perseverance rover scheduled to land on Mars at 20.55 GMT on Thursday 18 February after the ‘7 minutes of terror’

This evening, after a seven-month journey through space, NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, a scientific laboratory the size of a 4x4, will make its final descent to the Red Planet to begin a search for ancient life.

Perseverance is the first rover to be sent to Mars with the explicit objective of searching for traces of past microbial life, as opposed to “extant” life currently on the planet. To do this, the rover will select scientifically interesting Martian rock and soil samples to reconstruct the surface environment of Mars billions of years ago when it is believed that life could have existed.

Museum scientists Prof Caroline Smith and Dr Keyron Hickman-Lewis form part of the NASA Mars 2020 Science Team and will help to make decisions about sampling and analysis throughout the course of the mission. This will involve close collaboration with international partners such as UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency based at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, where the Museum will be opening a new science and digitisation centre in 2026.

Prof Caroline Smith, Head of Earth Sciences Collections at the Museum and member of the NASA Mars team says: “The Perseverance rover has been specifically designed to search for evidence of ancient life on Mars and with its ability to collect interesting samples for potential return to Earth gives us the best chance thus far to finally answer that big question of ‘Was there life on Mars?’ – this would be one of the most significant scientific discoveries in history”

After the nail-biting ‘seven minutes of terror,’ a prolonged lapse in communication between the rover and the team back on Earth caused by the rover ionising the area around it as it prepares to land, Perseverance will land at Jezero crater. Jezero is a 28-mile-wide depression containing diverse sediments of an ancient river delta and presents the most opportune environment in which past life could have been preserved.

Perseverance is the biggest and most advanced vehicle ever sent to land on another planet. Its apparatus, or payload, is geared to search for the chemical building blocks of life such as organic molecules and traces of microbial fossils, while reconstructing the Red Planet's geological history.

To gather samples, the rover will drill 7cm into the rocks on the planet’s surface, before sealing the samples in special tubes to be stored on the rover. When the rover reaches a suitable location, the tubes will be placed on the planet’s surface to be collected by a future retrieval mission planned for the early 2030s. This is the first mission to plan a return element which means that, for the first time ever, scientists will be able to select specific samples from Mars and later study them in labs here on Earth.

Prof Caroline Smith will be studying the mineralogy and geochemistry of the different rocks found at Jezero crater and is involved with planning how the samples will be curated upon their arrival on Earth. Dr Keyron Hickman-Lewis, who is funded by UK Space Agency, will be studying the environments reflected by the sedimentary rocks found at Jezero crater and their potential to preserve ancient microbial life within.

Dr Keyron Hickman-Lewis says, “Jezero crater provides a splendid window into the early history of Mars, when the planet may have hosted a biosphere. Traces of this biosphere, which was likely microbial, may be challenging to identify and so we will rely upon the rover’s instruments to help us make decisions as to where and what we should sample. Once returned to Earth, this unique set of samples will give us a deep understanding of the geology of Mars.”

Prof Caroline Smith says, “This is the culmination of years of intensive effort from thousands of scientists and engineers at NASA and around the world. We are so excited to reach this milestone in the mission, to see Perseverance land on Mars and start exploring the different rocks and geological features with the onboard cameras and scientific instruments.”

The rover also carries the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which will fly short distances from the rover and marks the first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another planet. A successful test of the helicopter could lead to more flying probes to survey the landscapes of other planets.

Also on board is a small piece of Martian meteorite that was discovered in Oman in 1999 and soon became a part of the Museum’s world-leading Collection. The meteorite, referred to as Sayh al Uhamiyr 008 or SaU 008, will now return to Mars where it will be used as part of a calibration target for SHERLOC, a high precision laser instrument on the rover that is used to analyse the chemistry and mineralogy of rock samples.


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It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.

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