By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
Perseverance is a pretty darn good name for NASA’s newest Mars rover. When the space agency opened up a naming contest in January, I initially championed Endurance, as an homage to the ship that ferried Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew on a 1912 mission to Antarctica. But now, as the rover (illustrated above) gets loaded up for launch on Thursday amid a deadly pandemic and economic unrest, it’s clear this mission is already marked by perseverance.
Getting to Mars even under non-pandemic conditions is no easy feat. Since the 1960s, more than half of the spacecraft sent to the red planet have missed the mark, sometimes sailing right past it and sometimes ending in catastrophic crashes. Perseverance has a bit of a leg up, since it is modeled after the wildly successful Curiosity rover, including its elaborate “sky crane” landing system and its rugged chassis. Still, the world will be watching with bated breath in February, when the new rover is scheduled to arrive at Mars and make a harrowing descent into a 30-mile-wide basin known as Jezero Crater.
If the rover survives the journey, it will make scientific history. Perseverance was primarily designed with the capability of finding signs of ancient life that may have persisted for millions of years. Loads of evidence collected by past missions, from empty deltas to hydrated minerals, suggest that dry, dusty Mars was much warmer and wetter in its youth. But while previous robotic visitors were able to shore up the case that Mars was once habitable, none had the instruments dedicated to detecting traces of past inhabitants. This time, the rover’s scientific toolkit can examine rocks in fine enough detail to search for the kinds of fossil structures and chemical clues that would strongly hint at the presence of living things.
As it happens, Perseverance won’t be alone when it makes its Martian rendezvous. On July 20, the UAE orbiter called Hope blasted off for the red planet, marking the first Mars launch initiated by an Arab country. Three days later, China was hot on its heels with the launch of the Tianwen-1 mission, which will aim to get the first Chinese orbiter and rover safely to Marst. All three missions should arrive in February.
Given the pandemic, it’s tempting to think these missions are a waste of time and resources—why bother sending robots to Mars while the world burns? Practically speaking, it can be even more expensive to delay a mission than it can be to forge ahead: Mars-bound spacecraft have to launch during limited time windows, and waiting for the next one would cost NASA about half a billion dollars, according to Antonia Jaramillo with Florida Today.
Also, science is rarely an either-or proposition. Money and human ingenuity spent on launching rovers would not necessarily be routed to vaccines, nor should it. After all, finding signs that we are, in fact, not alone in the solar system would be a profound moment for humankind, and one I would argue is necessary for our collective sense of wonder and our own desire to persevere.
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Your Instagram photo of the day
Green meteor over India: “A few years ago, I was in the Western Ghats covering the region's unique sky islands—the montane habitat formed by the hills that poke through cloud cover,” says photographer Prasenjeet Yadav. “This green meteor was caught during a time-lapse to demonstrate how these islands often float in a sea of urbanization. The camera was set at 15-second exposures for 999 frames, and this meteor showed up in one of the shots. A green meteor's hue comes from a combination of oxygen heating up around the meteor, and the mix of minerals ignited as the rock enters Earth's atmosphere.”
Related: Finding sky islands in a mountain range in India
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Today in a minute
Not always fearsome: Some saber-toothed animals ate plants; others showed off their teeth to mate or to fend off rivals. “Canines can be used for a number of reasons,” says Des Moines University paleontologist Julie Meachen. Even the oldest definitive saber-toothed animal yet found, which lived about 260 million years ago, wasn’t a carnivore, Riley Black reports for Nat Geo.
The race to a vaccine: A promising coronavirus vaccine candidate has hit another milestone, as Moderna Therapeutics began phase three of clinical trials. The move signals the biotech company and the National Institutes of Health, which are collaborating on the trial, are one step away from bringing the drug to the public and commercial markets, Nat Geo’s Nsikan Akpan writes. The development comes as a vaccine candidate from the University of Oxford also recently entered phase three in Brazil. Late Monday, Pfizer announced that it had also begun a late-stage study of a coronavirus vaccine.
Not fittest, friendliest: Did we get Darwin wrong? A new book by two neuroscientists posits that “survival of the fittest” might be “survival of the friendliest.” According to their work, friendly partnerships among species and shared humanity have worked throughout centuries to ensure successful evolution, the Washington Post reports. Humans, animals, and plants endure based on friendliness, partnership, and communication.
Wake up! Scientists have revived 100 million-year-old microbes that were buried deep below the ocean’s surface. Scientists know little about the cells, Wired reports. “This approach can show what each microbial cell ‘eats’ and provides a window into a world we typically don't see,” geobiologist Cara Magnabosco says. “The ability to study bacteria and archaea as individual cells rather than a collective community will undoubtedly lead to many more discoveries about how microorganisms survive on our planet."
This week in the night sky
Meteors, gas giants and a comet: This week will be a great time to count wishes, as the Delta Aquarid meteors zip across the skies at rates of half a dozen an hour. The first weekend of August will also see the nearly full moon pay a visit to two of the brightest planets visible in our skies. On Saturday, Jupiter appears hanging left of the moon, above the southern horizon. With binoculars, you can spy Jupiter’s four largest moons. On Sunday, Jupiter will be perched above the moon. And on Monday, the moon will swing by Saturn, creating an eye-catching lineup of the neighboring worlds. Don’t forget to get your last views of Comet NEOWISE this week as it recedes from Earth. It will be tucked just underneath the Big Dipper in the northwest sky about an hour after sunset. — Andrew Fazekas
Related: A guide to the spacecraft beyond the Earth’s orbit
The big takeaway
Trash, trash everywhere: The amount of plastic trash that flows into the ocean every year is expected to nearly triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tons, Nat Geo’s Laura Parker reports. That single, incomprehensibly large statistic is at the center of a new two-year research project that both illuminates the failure of the worldwide campaign to curb plastic pollution and prescribes an ambitious plan for reducing much of that flow into the seas. The project comes as global plastic production is on pace to increase 40 percent by 2030, and hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested in new plastic production plants, according to the report.
Subscriber exclusive: We’re drowning in plastic. Find out how.
In a few words
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The last glimpse
What COVID-19 does to a kid’s body: At least 20 kids under age five in the U.S. have died of the coronavirus so far, a drop in the bucket of the nearly 150,000 Americans killed in the last five months from the pandemic. It’s not clear how effectively kids transmit the virus to their elders, either. One robust South Korean study of nearly 65,000 kids showed that children in the 10- to 19-year-old age range could spread COVID-19 within households just as effectively as adults. One theory for less transmission from younger kids: They don’t breathe out with the same force, and their faces are closer to the ground, Nat Geo’s Sarah Gibbens writes. Above, a mother watches as her daughter’s temperature is taken at a drive-in clinic in South Korea.
Related: Who gets to live? COVID-19 doctors make impossible choices