Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist at Purdue University who’s part of the Mastcam-Z team, says scientists are most interested in finding organic matter that’s either heavily concentrated or could only be the result of biological activity, such as stromatolites (fossilized remains created by layers of bacteria). “If we find particular patterns, it could qualify as a biosignature that’s evidence of life,” she says. “Even if it’s not concentrated, if we see it in the right context, it could be a really powerful sign of a real biosignature.”
After Perseverance lands, engineers will spend several weeks testing and calibrating all instruments and functions before the science investigation begins in earnest. Once that’s over, Perseverance will spend a couple more months driving out to the first exploration sites at Jezero crater. We could find evidence of life on Mars as soon as this summer—if it was ever there.
New world, new tech
Like any new NASA mission, Perseverance is also a platform for demonstrating some of the most state-of-the-art technology in the solar system.
One is MOXIE, a small device that seeks to turn the carbon-dioxide-heavy Martian atmosphere into usable oxygen through electrolysis (using an electric current to separate elements). This has been done before on Earth, but it’s important to prove that it works on Mars if we hope humans can live there one day. Oxygen production could not only provide a Martian colony with breathable air; it could also be used to generate liquid oxygen for rocket fuel. MOXIE should have about 10 opportunities to make oxygen during Perseverance’s first two years, during different seasons and times of the day. It will run for about an hour each time, producing 6 to 10 grams of oxygen per session.
There’s also Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram helicopter that could take the first powered controlled flight ever made on another planet. Deploying Ingenuity (which is stowed underneath the rover) will take about 10 days. Its first flight will be about three meters into the air, where it will hover for about 20 seconds. If it successfully flies in Mars’s ultra-thin atmosphere (1% as dense as Earth’s), Ingenuity will have many more chances to fly elsewhere. Two cameras on the helicopter will help us see exactly what it sees. On its own, Ingenuity won’t be critical for exploring Mars, but its success could pave the way for engineers to think about new ways to explore other planets when a rover or lander will not suffice.
Neither of those demonstrations will be the marquee moment for Perseverance. The highlight of the mission, which may take 10 years to realize, will be the return of Martian soil samples to Earth. Perseverance will drill into the ground and collect more than 40 samples, most of which will be returned to Earth as part of a joint NASA-ESA mission. NASA officials suggest that this mission could come in either 2026 or 2028, which means the earliest they may be returned to Earth is 2031.
Collecting such samples is no small feat. Robotics company Maxar built the sample handling arm (SHA) that controls the drilling mechanism to collect cores of Martian soil from the ground. The company had to build something that worked autonomously, with hardware and electronics that could withstand temperature swings from -73 °C (100 °F) at night to more than 20 °C (70 °F) during the day. And most important, it had to build something that could contend with the Martian dust.
“When you’re talking about a moving mechanism that has to apply force and go exactly where you need it to go, you can’t have a tiny little dust particle stopping the whole show,” says Lucy Condakchian, the general manager of robotics at Maxar. SHA, located underneath the rover itself, is exposed to a ton of dust kicked up by the rover’s wheels or by drilling. Various innovations should help it withstand this problem, including new lubricants and a metallic accordion design for its lateral (front-to-back) movement.
Before any of those things are proved to work, however, the rover needs to make it to Mars in one piece.
“It never gets old,” says Condakchian. “I’m just as nervous as I’ve been on the previous missions. But it’s a good nervous—an excitement to be doing this again.”
SpaceX has successfully landed Starship after flight for the first time
On March 3, SpaceX’s Starship pulled off a successful high-altitude flight—its third in a row. Unlike in the first two missions, the spacecraft stuck the landing. Then, as in the last two, the spacecraft blew up.
What happened: At around 5:14 p.m. US Central Time, the 10th Starship prototype (SN10) was launched from SpaceX’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, flying about 10 kilometers into the air before falling back down and descending safely to Earth.
About 10 minutes later, the spacecraft blew up, from what appears to have been a methane leak. Still, the actual objectives of the mission were met.
Rocket Lab could be SpaceX’s biggest rival
In the private space industry, it can seem that there’s SpaceX and then there’s everyone else. Only Blue Origin, backed by its own billionaire founder in the person of Jeff Bezos, seems able to command the same degree of attention. And Blue Origin hasn’t even gone beyond suborbital space yet.
Rocket Lab might soon have something to say about that duopoly. The company, founded in New Zealand and headquartered in Long Beach, California, is second only to SpaceX when it comes to launch frequency—the two are ostensibly the only American companies that regularly go to orbit. Its small flagship Electron rocket has flown 18 times in just under four years and delivered almost 100 satellites into space, with only two failed launches.
On March 1, the company made its ambitions even clearer when it unveiled plans for a new rocket called Neutron. At 40 meters tall and able to carry 20 times the weight that Electron can, Neutron is being touted by Rocket Lab as its entry into markets for large satellite and mega-constellation launches, as well as future robotics missions to the moon and Mars. Even more tantalizing, Rocket Lab says Neutron will be designed for human spaceflight as well. The company calls it a “direct alternative” to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
“Rocket Lab is one of the success stories among the small launch companies,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “They are edging into the territory of the larger, more established launch companies now—especially SpaceX.”
That ambition was helped by another bit of news announced on March 1: Rocket Lab’s merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation. Joining forces with a special-purpose acquisition company, a type of company that ostensibly enables another business to go public without an IPO, will allow Rocket Lab to benefit from a massive influx of money that gives it a new valuation of $4.1 billion. Much of that money is going toward development and testing of Neutron, which the company wants to start flying in 2024.
It’s a bit of an about-face for Rocket Lab. CEO Peter Beck had previously been lukewarm about the idea of building a larger rocket that could launch bigger payloads and potentially offer launches for multiple customers at once.
But the satellite market has embraced ride-share missions into orbit, especially given the rise of satellite mega-constellations, which will probably make up most satellites launched into orbit over the next decade. Neutron is capable of taking 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit, which means it could deliver potentially dozens of payloads to orbit at once. As a lighthearted mea culpa, the introductory video for Neutron showed Beck eating his own hat.
Recovering from the SolarWinds hack could take 18 months
SolarWinds Orion, the network management product that was targeted, is used in tens of thousands of corporations and government agencies. Over 17,000 organizations downloaded the infected back door. The hackers were extraordinarily stealthy and specific in targeting, which is why it took so long to catch them—and why it’s taking so long to understand their full impact.
The difficulty of uncovering the extent of the damage was summarized by Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, in a congressional hearing last week.
“Who knows the entirety of what happened here?” he said. “Right now, the attacker is the only one who knows the entirety of what they did.”
Kevin Mandia, CEO of the security company FireEye, which raised the first alerts about the attack, told Congress that the hackers prioritized stealth above all else.
“Disruption would have been easier than what they did,” he said. “They had focused, disciplined data theft. It’s easier to just delete everything in blunt-force trauma and see what happens. They actually did more work than what it would have taken to go destructive.”
“This has a silver lining”
CISA first heard about a problem when FireEye discovered that it had been hacked and notified the agency. The company regularly works closely with the US government, and although it wasn’t legally obligated to tell anyone about the hack, it quickly shared news of the compromise with sensitive corporate networks.
It was Microsoft that told the US government federal networks had been compromised. The company shared that information with Wales on December 11, he said in an interview. Microsoft observed the hackers breaking into the Microsoft 365 cloud that is used by many government agencies. A day later, FireEye informed CISA of the back door in SolarWinds, a little-known but extremely widespread and powerful tool.
This signaled that the scale of the hack could be enormous. CISA’s investigators ended up working straight through the holidays to help agencies hunt for the hackers in their networks.
These efforts were made even more complicated because Wales had only just taken over at the agency: days earlier, former director Chris Krebs had been fired by Donald Trump for repeatedly debunking White House disinformation about a stolen election.