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Perseverance Rover To Land on Mars. Is this NASA's most daring effort in search of ancient life?

NASA will face the most grueling parking work to date before it can scour Mars for signs of life.

NASA will make a bold attempt on February 18th to land a car-sized rover on Mars in its most complex quest to search for ancient extraterrestrial life yet. The Perseverance rover will lead off the first leg of a grand relay race to collect humanity's first cache of pristine Martian soil samples, among many other scientific goals it aims to score along the way if it survives the plunge through the atmosphere of the Red Planet.


Having traveled 293 million miles since its launch in July last year, the rover is now preparing to perform the most grueling parking job ever performed by the Solar System. Perseverance will begin its wicked seven-minute descent through the Martian surface at about 3:48 PM ET, entering the planet's atmosphere at speeds of approximately 12,100 miles per hour before being peacefully deposited at Mars' Jezero Crater in a messy jungle of cliffs, huge boulders, and dangerously sandy pits.

The spacecraft carrying Perseverance will experience blazing heat in the fully autonomous landing sequence, ditch its protective shell, and deploy a series of parachutes. The descent stage of the spacecraft will fire onboard thrusters as it reaches the surface to slow itself down to a sedate 2 mph and hover some 66 feet above the surface. Then comes the "sky crane" technique: the descent stage, still firing its six mini rocket thrusters, will gently reduce the remainder of the way to the earth, Perseverance on cables. It will snip its cables once the rover touches down, causing the descent stage to take off, finally landing far away from Perseverance.


The agency will provide live feeds of NASA coverage and video and audio of mission control starting at 2:15 PM ET, to digitally join engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as they monitor Perseverance's plunge into Mars. The actual video of the landing of the spacecraft will take a week or two to beam back to Earth, but it will be worth the wait. Perseverance has 19 on-board cameras, and four promising views of parachute deployment and other phases of its rapid descent are available for its landing gear.


Dozens of mission engineers have spent years preparing, troubleshooting, mapping, and stressing the seven-minute landing sequence at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. "It all comes down to that," Al Chen, NASA's entry, descent, and landing lead, told The Verge in an interview. "He calls his team of about 30 engineers working this week "glorified delivery guys." But the stakes are far higher than the typical Amazon drone-delivered package with a $2.7 billion rover.

We know that the rest of the mission, the mission on the surface, everything that follows, and the rest of the campaign depends on us. So we want to make sure we're not letting anybody down,' said Chen. An 11-minute contact delay between Mars and Earth makes it even more nerve-wracking, ensuring Perseverance would have to carry out its descent and landing all by itself.

Chen said, "We have this great 200-foot cliff wall going right through the middle of the crater." Around the place, there are a lot of craters full of sand that it wouldn't be possible to drive out of even though we landed there. And in a number of different locations, there are rocks that we certainly don't want to come down on.

What's Perseverance going to do on Mars?

Why would NASA choose such a challenging area in which to land? "Because the geology of the Jezero crater is so exceptionally well-preserved," says Briony Horgan, a scientist working on Mars Perseverance at Purdue University. The 28-mile-wide diameter of Jezero may be a gold mine for fossilized microorganisms, and its combination of various rock formations provides a smorgasbord of possible samples for researchers. What's more, scientists assume that around 3.5 billion years ago, Jezero hosted a river delta, storing organic matter in the mud even after it dried out.

"We believe that those muds that could contain signs of organic materials and life are actually preserved at the base of the delta at the cliffs, based on orbital data from the delta," Horgan said.

This is crucial to the primary task of Perseverance: packaging about 43 soil samples in cigar-sized tubes and depositing them at Jezero across 5-10 separate locations. Those tubes will remain for years on the surface before a potential 'fetch' mission, jointly designed by NASA and the European Space Agency, arrives for pickup. In the late 2020s, when a fleet of four spacecraft and robots will operate in concert to land on Mars, collect the sample tubes, and shoot a soccer ball-sized sample canister back into space for a trip home to Earth, the mission's turn in the relay race will come.

The secondary goals of Perseverance include a mini-helicopter called Creativity. Detaching from the belly of the rover, the $85 million craft will attempt to travel up to five times over a month-long window that will begin a month or two after Perseverance lands in Mars' ultra-thin atmosphere. For the craft's four-foot-wide propellers, using helicopter blades to navigate a world with a much thinner atmosphere than Earth's requires extra power and speed. If the flight demo succeeds as engineers expect, it will mark the first vertical rotorcraft demonstration on another globe and could open access for more conventional grounded rovers to more unpredictable extraterrestrial regions that are too rough or slippery.

Although weighing only half a gallon of milk, Ingenuity would have solar power panels, its own communication hardware, and two cameras (one to record Martian landscapes during flight and another to help with navigation). 19 cameras plus a few microphones promising high-def audio of the Martian wind are also decked out with Perseverance. The audiovisuals provide engineers with a way to track the instruments of the rover to make sure everything looks and sounds natural. A so-called SuperCam sticking out of the rover roof, essentially looking like the robot head of Perseverance-----It will concentrate on Martian rocks, zap them with a laser beam, and evaluate the resulting cloud of vapor produced.


All the wild science and engineering that depends on a good Thursday landing.

For their landing zone, Perseverance has 4.8 miles of cushion. 4.8 miles is a tiny bull's-eye for a mission millions of miles to Mars, one that is 10 times smaller than the flat surface the Curiosity rover landed on in 2012, and 300 times smaller than that of the first Mars rover by NASA, Sojourner, in 1997. Two pieces of tech that the other rovers did not have to make such tactical accuracy possible: a "Range Trigger" that will accurately shoot out the parachutes of Perseverance when it decelerates to 940 mph during its descent, and an enhanced navigation system that connects to a Mars orbiter to calculate exactly where the rover will land in Jezero.

"It's sort of like what people used to use in the car, looking out of the car window, seeing what you see, and then looking at your map, trying to figure out where you are," Chen said." "We don't need the entire [landing zone] to be a flat and boring runway parking lot anymore, we just need tiny little parking lots that we can reach that are interspersed."


Source The Verge

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