div>The red planet cannot be missed. A large poster of the surface of Mars adorns the wall in Franz Renz’s office. Next to it is a map on which different regions of our neighboring planet are drawn. “This is roughly where ‘Perseverance’ landed,” says Renz, pointing to one of the surfaces. On February 18, the Nasa rover reached its destination and set out on an exploration tour in which it is supposed to search for traces of life. Since then, the 2.2 billion euro vehicle has delighted scientists and laypeople all over the world with impressive extraterrestrial images.
“That was a real breakthrough”
Renz is excited. The Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Leibniz University has a very special relationship with Mars. The 53-year-old has been a member of NASA for a good two decades and was involved in the international Mars mission in 2003 when he was still doing research at the University of Mainz, where the two rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” successfully landed. On board were highly complex measuring devices, so-called Mössbauer spectrometers, which Renz had helped develop. Mounted on a robotic arm, these instruments have identified certain ferrous minerals. “That was a real breakthrough,” says the chemist. “It was proof that there must have been ocean-like amounts of water billions of years ago on Mars.” Because oceans, liquid water, are the basic prerequisite for all life as we know it.
Originally, the two rovers should only be in use for 90 days on Mars. “Sol is called a Martian day,” explains Renz, who has been teaching at Leibniz University since 2008. “A sol is 24 hours and 37 minutes long.” In fact, “Opportunity” managed 5111 sols, while its rolling twin managed 2210 sols. In the end, however, they ran out of energy because the solar panels were gradually being polluted by the red Martian dust. During this time, until March 2019, the Hanoverian scientist continuously received data from space in his institute on Callinstrasse – in constant communication with the NASA base in Pasadena, California.
Legacies on the red planet
“It was a unique experience to be part of such a mission,” enthuses Renz, who can still be seen to be enthusiastic. He has built up two unmistakable mementos in his office: The models of “Spirit” and “Opportunity” are on his desk. And even if the originals stand silent in the dust a good 6,000 kilometers from the “Perseverance” landing site, it makes him proud that the two are among the legacies of international missions on Mars.
Laser center involved in ESA mission
The LZH was awarded the contract to participate in the “Exomars” mission of the European space agency Esa and the Russian space agency Roskosmos in 2006. Since then, the researchers from Marienwerder have continuously improved their Mars laser, together with the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen. The rover, equipped with several research devices, should actually start the journey to Mars in the summer of 2020. “Unfortunately there were technical problems with the tests simulated on earth with the landing parachutes,” reports Neumann. The start of the mission, which is planned in Baikonur in Kazakhstan, has therefore been postponed to September 20, 2022.
The LZH scientists delivered their work on time, emphasizes Neumann. The laser was built into the rover’s measuring instrument by the space technology company Thales Alenia in Italy. On board, the 20 centimeter long laser has already passed all stress tests that the Airbus company in France had tried out under space conditions.
Renz has no doubt that the enormous effort for such projects is justified, even though each of the ventures cost several billion euros. “Every euro is worth it,” emphasizes the scientist. After all, it is not just about finding possible life in the universe. Understanding developments on Mars also means recognizing comparable processes on Earth. Mars once had not only oceans, but also an atmosphere that could have been like ours. But today the red planet is only surrounded by a wafer-thin atmosphere, liquid water has completely disappeared, on the surface there is almost only sand and rocks. “We have to ask ourselves: Can this also happen on earth – and how can we prevent it?” Says Renz, referring to climate protection.
Also read: NASA rover “Perseverance” landed on Mars
Deadly threats to humans on Mars
For the passionate researcher, it is clear that a human landing on Mars is “the next big dream – but still a fatal dream”. Because the return trip to the planet, which is between 56 and 400 million kilometers away, depending on the orbit, would take about seven months in the best case. However, a total of about three years travel time must be expected, since waiting time on Mars is necessary in order to catch a favorable planetary constellation for the start of the return journey, explains Renz. This means an immense burden and a great risk for space travelers, because there are also dangers from space radiation. Whether these problems can one day be solved is ultimately a question of money.
For the time being, Renz has set closer goals. He is waiting for a delivery of a few grams of lunar rock, which the Chinese “Chang’e 5” space probe recently brought back from the satellite. The chemist wants to examine these samples with his Mössbauer spectrometer. Concrete preparations are already underway for the “Chang’e 7” mission, which is expected to start on the moon in 2024/2025 – the European space agency Esa is also involved. “We are negotiating about sending our spectrometer upstairs,” reports Renz. He also tries to get involved in other international space projects.
Access to data of the “Perseverance Rover”
Renz is only involved in the current “Perseverance” mission on Mars as a “passive scientist”, as he calls it. “As a NASA member, I will have access to a certain part of the data with a time delay.” He is already hoping for the year 2031. Then NASA and Esa will go on a joint mission to bring the rock samples collected by the rover back to Earth. And maybe some of it will end up in the laboratories on Callinstrasse.
By Juliane Kaune