NASA’s Perseverance rover is today making its final descent into the Jezero Crater, 19 degrees north of the Martian equator, where it will look for signs of ancient life. The landing (if successful) will mark a major milestone in Mars exploration, but may also raise questions of the Australian government’s strategic approach to space.
The 45 kilometre-wide crater is an ancient lakebed from a time (several billion years ago) when Mars was a warmer and wetter planet than it is today. Although it’s still unclear as to how the ancient Martian atmosphere sustained flowing water, evidence for that flow is everywhere, not least through geographic features like Jezero.
The Perseverance rover will land near the crater’s rim before heading to a nearby ancient river delta to look for evidence of past life in its rocks and sediments.
Animation depicts NASA's Perseverance rover operating on the surface of Mars. GIPHY/NASA/JPL-Caltech
A number of Australian scientists are supporting the Perseverance mission. David Flannery, a planetary scientist at the University of Queensland, is working as a long-term planner and instrument co-investigator; Australian geologist Abigail Allwood is leading the team that developed an instrument capable of detecting past life on the rover; and software from the Queensland University of Technology will analyse data that the rover returns from Mars.
These are the type of contributions heralded by the Australian Space Agency’s Moon to Mars initiative, which intends to showcase Australian capabilities that can support NASA. The initiative has three investment arms, including the signature Trailblazer program to invest in capabilities that will play a ‘direct role’ in NASA’s goal of sending humans back to the Moon and onwards to Mars.
Since its beginnings in 2018, the ASA has emphasised a jobs and industry-first approach. At ADM’s last Space Summit in December 2020, Adam Seedsman, Executive Director of Strategy and Policy at the ASA, again stressed its role as a business facilitator rather than a traditional space agency.
“We're different to other space agencies,” Seedsman said. “We're an economic development agency. We have a mandate to establish growth through space in other core industries, such as agriculture."
But Flannery himself has been critical of this ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ approach. In a 2019 piece for The Conversation, he argued that Australia’s involvement in deep space has been ‘serendipitous rather than intentional’. By contrast, Canada – with a comparable economy and population – has contributed hugely to international space missions through manipulator systems on the Space Shuttles, Space Station and the upcoming Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a launchpad for people heading to Mars.
Flannery argues that Australia is uniquely placed to support the possible return of samples from the Perseverance rover in Jezero crater, but is hampered by the ‘jobs’ mandate that the ASA has been handed.
“The planning of the nascent Australian Space Agency has largely focused on creating jobs and nurturing industry, but it needs a list of scientific priorities to guide investment in space missions,” he wrote in a subsequent piece. “Otherwise, we risk building a car that is missing the driver’s seat.
“At successful space agencies overseas, engineers and private industry work with scientists who conceive and operate spacecraft in pursuit of truth. Employment and innovation come from scientific projects, not the other way around.”
So for some observers, the landing of the Perseverance rover may raise a question for the ASA’s political overseers in the Department of Industry and higher. Is a ‘jobs’ mandate for the Space Agency truly showcasing Australia’s space expertise? Or will Australia’s contribution to the global space sector again be measured by the contributions of Australians living and working overseas?