African reflections on the landing of the NASA Perseverance Mars Rover robot

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SHERLOC on Perseverance's Robotic Arm: SHERLOC, one of the instruments onboard NASA's Perseverance Mars rover, sits on the end of the rover's robotic arm. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

By Professor Arthur G.O. Mutambara

The US NASA Perseverance Rover safely landed on Mars on 18 February 2021 after a 470.7 million-kilometre-journey from Earth, which it began on 30 July 2020. The robotic vehicle landed itself flawlessly in Mars’s Jezero Crater.

The scientific objectives

1) Search for, and identify, a past capable of microbial life, i.e., investigate the habitability of Mars.

2) Look for signs of current microbial life (biosignatures) in the places where the history of life is detected.

3) Note the distinction between microbial life and intelligent life (human-like life). The expectation (or assumption) is that there is no intelligent life elsewhere in the universe except on Earth.

Of course, this our shared human arrogance as a species.

4) Collect rock and soil samples, analyse them on site and bring some to Earth for further studies about Mars’s mineralisation, geography, habitability etc.

No surprises on who will own the minerals if they are discovered!

5) Prepare Mars for the landing and then habitation by humans. For example, on the Rover, there is equipment to produce oxygen from Mars’s atmosphere, which consists mainly of carbon dioxide.

No surprises on who will colonise the planet if it is made habitable!

The technology involved

The Perseverance Mars Rover is a six-wheeled mobile robot with the following technologies:

1) Multiple sensors such as super-cameras, imagers and radar

2) Intelligent sensor fusion and control – to interpret the various sensor information and use the outcome to direct the Rover’s movement.

3) Six wheel mobile robotic technology for navigating the rough, rugged and unpredictable Martian terrain.

3) Robotic arm for collecting samples and manipulating objects on the surface of Mars.

4) An ultraviolet spectrometer and an X-ray spectrometer for on-site analysis of collected soil and rock samples.

5) MEDA – A mounted weather station on the Rover.

6) MOXIE – Technology to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide, which is the dominant gas in the Martian atmosphere.

7) Mini-helicopter drone – A solar-powered experimental aircraft to test flight stability and scout driving routes for Rover.

Why space exploration?

Are we not wasting resources by pursuing such grand scientific projects? Well, human curiosity will continue to exist in the midst of poverty, disease, inequality or war. Those with the cash will use their resources to address to explore, experiment and venture into the unknown.

What will be prudent is to pursue a multipurpose agenda where science is used to address curiosity but also to solve existing problems.  More importantly, the science and technology developed from the pursuit of curiosity (such as space exploration) can be applied to solve urgent and pressing human problems.

It is a dynamic process.

Given the negative experiences (to Africans and others) of past voyages and discoveries, this plunge into space exploration should be cooperative. However, no one will involve the African if we do not pull our resources together and assert agency as a united and integrated continent.

Short of that, we will remain noisy bystanders and observers, if not victims.

China and India are out there playing the space game. Here are their strengths China: 1.4 billion people and GDP USD 14.3 trillion; India: 1.37 billion people and GDP of USD2.9 trillion.

If Africans work as one market (or country), our strength is: 1.3 billion people and collective GDP of USD2.5 trillion. This is what we should leverage as ONE entity and not fragmented and non-viable states.

ONLY as such a vast integrated economy can a united Africa participate in these cooperative scientific adventures and discoveries, NOT as small and inconsequential states such as Zimbabwe, SA, Botswana or Nigeria.

We must unite in pursuit of high technology and advanced science.

The landing of the Perseverance Mars Rover is both an instructive inspiration and a profound demonstration of the unbounded nature of science and technology applications.

As Africans, we must be inspired, embrace science and deploy technology to solve our many developmental problems. This ambition can be best accomplished as one country, the United States of Africa (USA).

After thought

Well, is the USA a realistic proposition? Indeed, it is a daunting but existential proposition. There were massive difficulties that the US, China, India and USSR (later Russia) went through to establish their powerful and competitive nations. The creation of those super-states was rooted in, and anchored by, immense sacrifice and struggle.

No pain, no gain. Nothing ever comes from soft ground. Without sacrifice and struggle, there will be no progress. We have to give up on narrow national sovereignty, limited national agendas and meaningless national presidencies (55 of them!) to embrace the United States of Africa.

Most of these African leaders – our Presidents and Prime Ministers – and their people are not prepared to absorb these short-term sacrifices and embrace the long-term collective greatness. In fact, the African leaders pay lip service to regional (SADC, EAC, ECOWAS, etc.) and continental (AU, AfCFTA, NEPAD, etc.) decisions.

They meet, make important regional and continental decisions, take a group picture and revert to national plans and visions when they are back in their countries.

The grand regional and continental projects are not implemented. They are not even referred to in national discourse or reflected in national budgets. Tragic.

Clearly, there is need to demonstrate that the USA’s benefits and efficacy outweigh the national sacrifices. More importantly, it is essential to explain that the USA’s creation is a matter of African survival and not choice. Under globalisation and the 4IR, we will only flourish and prosper as a politically united and economically integrated continent.

Needless to say, uniting Africans and integrating the continent will require principled, dedicated and visionary Pan-African leaders, who are sadly in debilitating short supply.

Indeed, the Landing of the US NASA Perseverance Mars Rover Robot further ignites inspiration for the United States of Africa – a country.

Professor Arthur Mutambara is a former deputy prime minister of Zimbabwe