Sunday, 28 February, 2021

NASA's rover Perseverance makes historic Mars landing

Mars2020 first image The first image taken by a hazard camera or hazcam on the Perseverance rover after landing on Mars. Credit NASA JPL
Adrian Cunningham | 19 February, 2021, 05:55

Perseverance is NASA's fifth Mars rover, dating back to the Sojourner rover flown on the Mars Pathfinder mission that landed in 1997, and is by far the most sophisticated.

Despite the red planet's wispy atmosphere, engineers hope that Ingenuity's 4-foot rotors, spinning five times faster than the blades of a helicopter on Earth, coupled with the low Martian gravity, will help get it off the ground. The search for signs of ancient life on Mars.

Scientists hope to find biosignatures embedded in samples of ancient sediments that Perseverance is created to extract from Martian rock for future analysis back on Earth - the first such specimens ever collected by humankind from another planet.

The first photos sent back by the probe show a relatively smooth and dusty surface, with a few small rocks in the rover's immediate vicinity.

The target for the car-sized, plutonium-powered rover was a narrow strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and fields of rock.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter relayed data from the rover throughout landing.

There's a new robot on the surface of Mars.

There is one other exciting experiment aboard the rover - a mini-helicopter, known as Ingenuity.

The risky, autonomously guided landing phase lasts about seven minutes, and it takes more than 11 minutes for a radio signal to reach Earth.

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Perseverance was on its own during the NASA-described "seven minutes of terror" descent. But if Perseverance is anything like its sister rover Curiosity, which was landed on Mars in 2012, was also pegged for just two Earth years and is still hard at work, it could exceed that minimal mission by a decade or more. Sample return missions are extremely rare due to their expense; indeed, there has never been a sample return mission from another planet.

Scientists believe that if life ever flourished on Mars, it would have happened three billion to four billion years ago, when water still flowed on the planet. The almost seven-month journey the spacecraft took to reach Mars was a gentle coast compared to the final, frenzied seven minutes of atmospheric entry and descent it had to execute in order to stick its landing.

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".

The landing was the most challenging and technically complex ever attempted on Mars, which has claimed the robotic lives of roughly half the crafts seeking its surface.

"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.

It's engineered to touch down Thursday afternoon using a supersonic parachute to slow its speed. Perseverance's total weight is about 2,260 pounds, and the rover is expected to operate for at least two years.

The atmosphere of Mars is a tiny fraction of Earth's - too thin to offer much in the way of a brake for a spacecraft on a speeding descent but thick enough to burn it up if something goes wrong. The European Space Agency also has tried and failed.

"It is not guaranteed that we will be successful", Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Science Mission Directorate's associate administrator, acknowledged. This will help NASA study how to produce oxygen from Mars' carbon dioxide atmosphere, an important step for the future of human exploration on Mars.