NASA's nervous moment - the Mars mission faces its biggest test

Brunilde Fioravanti
Febbraio 19, 2021

There's no guarantee that the rover will successfully land on Mars.

There's a spacecraft and a rover about 200 million kilometres (124m/miles) away from Earth that needs all the help it can get at that time. If the samples make it to Earth a few years after that, researchers will analyze them for signs of life that could be preserved in fossilized microbial mats or, more likely, a lumpy distribution of organic molecules.

The rover's job will be to select a promising and diverse set of samples, which it will collect and stow on the surface for future spacecraft to retrieve and ferry back to scientists waiting on Earth.

Perseverance promptly sent back a grainy, black-and-white photo of Mars' pockmarked surface, the rover's shadow visible in the frame.

The rover locks its legs and wheels into a landing position and touches the ground at a little less than two miles (1.2 kilometers) an hour, as the descent stage flies off and makes its own controlled landing.

The computer controls a visual navigation algorithm using Mars surface geographical features tracked with the camera.

The multi-stage spacecraft carrying the rover soared into the top of Martian atmosphere at almost 16 times the speed of sound on Earth, angled to produce aerodynamic lift while jet thrusters adjusted its trajectory.

For a full breakdown of Perseverance's bells and whistles visit the rover's official page on NASA's website. The first helicopter fly on another planet.

This final minuscule portion of the trip is sometimes referred to as 'seven minutes of terror' - not only because of the intricate sequence involved, but also because radio signals take so long to reach Earth that, by the time they've reached us, the landing has already happened.

As part of the Perseverance mission, NASA will also deploy the Ingenuity helicopter, which is mounted on the rover, to study the Martian atmosphere. It will take 10 years for the samples to be returned to Earth and NASA.

The now dry and dusty 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater shows unmistakable signs of having been filled with liquid water billions of years ago.

NASA is set to launch its next rover to Mars on July 31, in what is certain to be an exciting new phase in humanity's exploration of the Red Planet.

With 12 seconds to go, at a height of 66 feet (20 meters), the rocket-powered descent stage lowers the rover down to the ground using long cables in a maneuver called "skycrane".

If that happens, "it would suggest that not all habitable environments that exist are inhabited", said Ken Farley, Mars 2020 project scientist, at a February 17 briefing.

"So, this isn't just a NASA effort and there's scientists from all over the world who will want the data from this mission", said Nichols.

"Being able to answer questions like that is the whole reason why I joined NASA to begin with", he said.

Perseverance is scheduled to land Thursday afternoon around 3:55 PM EST.

"Touchdown confirmed", said Swati Mohan, the JPL engineer narrating the landing attempt. NASA has three Mars satellites still in orbit, along with two from the European Space Agency. It's about the size of a small vehicle and it's been created to be sturdy enough to last for years in Mars' extreme environment.

"It really is the beginning of a new era", NASA's associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said earlier in the day during NASA's webcast of the event.

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