Sanford native Mike Angel was among many scientists who, at 4:56 p.m. Thursday, celebrated the landing of the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars.
The Mars 2020 mission has several objective, but the biggest will be its search for signs of life on the Red Planet.
“This is one of the most exciting space missions ever launched,” Angel, 67, said Wednesday in an email. “ ‘Is there life elsewhere in the universe’ is one of the biggest questions there is.’
“If we find evidence that even a singled-celled organism once lived on Mars, it will answer this question and change the world.”
The mission was funded about eight years ago and it’s taken that much time to develop and build the spacecraft and instruments aboard, Angel said.
The spacecraft was launched July 30, beginning the seven-month journey. It’s traveled nearly three million miles, Angel said.
The mission has several objectives in addition to searching for signs of life — past or present.
Tests will be done to determine if the carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere can be used to produce oxygen.
Aboard the craft is Ingenuity, a helicopter, that will help scientists determine if power flight is possible on Mars, he said.
The rover is designed to send data to scientists for at least two years, Angel said, but another rover, Curiosity, has been active on Mars for nine years and it’s expected that will be the case on this mission.
Perseverance is equipped with 23 cameras, Angel said, some of them video.
“SuperCam is the main instrument I helped develop for Perseverance. It has a laser and is used to make three different types of laser remote analysis measurements for rocks up to 10 meters from the rover in any direction,” Angel said.
“The Perseverance rover will travel at a blinding 0.1 mph, averaging about 100 meters per day,” he said.
Thursday’s landing site was in a crater called Jezero, an ancient lake bed that’s several miles wide and about 1,500 feet deep, Angel said.
“What better place to look for traces of life than an old lake bed in an area where there might have been hydrothermal springs,” Angel said.
Scientists know that on Earth, there is life where there is water.
Angel said he is one part of the SuperCam team which includes about 50 scientists
Aboard Perseverance is a helicopter, Ingenuity, that will help scientists determine if power flight can be achieved on Mars.
Angel, a 1971 graduate of Sanford Central High School, is a chemistry professor at the University of South Carolina, but has been involved in space exploration for years.
His career began at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
“I did research on laser remote analysis, the use of lasers coupled to telescopes to do chemical analysis of samples, like rocks or hazardous substances, that were located 10-50 meters away, without having to touch the substances,” Angel explained.
The techniques developed by Angel and his students are being used on the Perseverance Rover. They’ll be used to study rocks and soil in the search for chemical evidence of past or present life, he said.
Angel was asked to serve on the Mars2020 science team because of his skill with laser remote analysis, he said.
The mission is reminiscent of the Apollo trips in the 1960s and 70s, which inspired youth and helped strengthen the nation, he said.
“Many kids from that time, like me, were inspired by those missions to become scientists, and engineers and to enter other technical jobs,” Angel said.
“This makes our country stronger and is important in maintaining our leadership in the world. Missions like Mars2020 will have similar benefits — just look at the interest this landing is generating.”