Brian Cox: Seven Days on Mars review – out of this world!

The staggering science and jaw-dropping feats of humanity at mission control for Mars make the particle physicist more excited than ever. Will they find signs of life?

‘They’re talking, now,” says Brian Cox (particle physics professor, not Succession tyrant), gesturing to the banks of screens filled with numbers, images, graphs and data, “to the solar system.” Cox is in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – otherwise known as mission control for Mars 2020. Everything we can see is dedicated to ensuring the safe passage of the Perseverance rover across the surface of Mars as it searches for, among other things, signs that we are not alone in the universe.

In Brian Cox: Seven Days on Mars (BBC Two), the professor spends a week with the engineers and scientists dedicated to the multibillion-dollar task of developing the rover, sending it safely on its six-month journey through space and landing it on the hazardous rocky surface. They must then compile its daily set of instructions – thousand of lines of code – and upload them via the Deep Space Network so it can take rock samples, beam back data and make its way to the ancient dried river delta within Jezero Crater, whose hydrated history is thought to make it the most likely site on which to find evidence of past Martian life.

It’s the kind of programme that, long before it gets to the presence or otherwise of little green men/chemical traces of cyanobacteria in three-billion-year-old stromatolites, has you periodically open-mouthed at the staggering feats of humanity on display.

Here’s the team fixing the rover, which is currently stuck sampling a rock, from a room 200m miles away. Here’s chief engineer of robotics operations Vandi Verma donning 3D goggles to help her plot a route for Perseverance through some particularly tricky terrain before they can let the autodrive function take over again. Here’s Al Chen, the man responsible for designing the rover’s precision landing system, whose first full test was – the landing itself. “In front of everyone else in the world,” he says. “I definitely didn’t want to know what my blood pressure was doing.”

Incredible technology … see behind the scenes at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Incredible technology … behind the scenes at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photograph: Kelly Wundsam/BBC/Arrow International Media

We watch footage of the day itself, people hunched over screens, hands touched to headphones to see if Chen’s system for taking the Perseverance from 20,000 km/h to walking pace to touchdown in a place determined by the rover to be safe would work. “We have confirmation,” says one of the team, straightening up, “that the lander vision system has provided a valid solution.” Were sweeter words ever spoken? The room erupts in cheers.

There was so much to see and say about the incredible technology, emergent data and essentially new knowledge pouring out all around him that it dispelled some of the whimsicality that is generally attendant on Cox’s programmes. Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing, of course, will depend on your tolerance for it. Mine is low, so I enjoyed Seven Days in Mars more than some of his previous outings. Being able to trust his material, and it being so abundant, made for a much more substantial offering.

Not that his genuine and obvious joy in his surroundings and the findings round every corner weren’t a pleasure. Even those of us who don’t want saccharine aren’t looking for jaded. And it was particularly good to have him challenge those who in – ahem – their cynicism might have been wondering what the point of looking for life on Mars is. It’s to see, he explained, if it started there or here. To determine how easily and/or how differently life can evolve. To recalculate the likelihood of our uniqueness or otherwise. And to show what we are capable of when we work together to increase the sum of human knowledge.

At least the best of us will leave a little more than another layer of stromatolites when they go.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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