When the Perseverance rover touched down on the surface of the Red Planet in 2020, kickstarting a new generation of exploration on Mars, a shockwave went out as astronomy enthusiasts across the globe breathed out a collective sigh of relief. However, landing on a planet roughly 54.6 million kilometers (33.9 million miles) away was only the beginning of Perseverance’s journey. We talked to Professor Brian Cox about what came next, the topic of his new film for the BBC, Seven Days On Mars.
In the film, we follow Prof. Brian Cox as he heads to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of mission control for Mars 2020 – one of the most ambitious missions ever launched, which seeks to establish if life once existed on the Red Planet.
We spoke to Cox about his time following Perseverance’s every move as it makes its way towards an ancient river delta within Jezero Crater and attempts to break the record for the longest distance traveled on another planet in seven days.
In his week of exclusive access, Cox follows the teams currently guiding the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter as they try to traverse 200 meters per day across the Jezero Crater. The site is thought to be a hopeful candidate for revealing evidence of past life, but directing a rover across the unpredictable terrain of a planet tens of millions of miles away comes with unique challenges.
Each day, NASA engineers ping instructions up to Perseverance who then tackles the journey autonomously, following the instructions but with the inbuilt capacity to problem solve certain obstacles should they appear. In that time, the JPL team has to wait until they next achieve a signal and can see how Perseverance has progressed.
These pockets enable Cox to do a bit of exploring at JPL, including one particularly memorable sequence where he heads to the Mars Perseverance rover that never left planet Earth. This replica is near-identical to that on Mars and was able to show off its redirection skills as Cox offers himself to be run over in a game of “interplanetary chicken”.
However, these rovers stand on the shoulders of those that came before them and are now so advanced that swerving a Professor of Particle Physics is easy, especially given it’s cruising at a cool speed of 0.12 kilometers per hour.
The Jezero Crater was filled by a vast lake around 3.8 billion years ago, and – if Earth is to be believed – where we find water, we often find life. This is what the Mars 2020 mission and Perseverance seek to find, and should they be successful it could change everything we know about life in the universe.
Want to go along for the ride? Follow Perseverance as it navigates the Red Planet in Seven Days On Mars which airs on BBC Two at 9 pm (BST) on Friday 17 June 2022, and will be available to stream on iPlayer after.