The Perseverance rover just touched down on Mars, placing a one-ton SUV-sized robotic car on the Red Planet.
Following a 203-day mission, the Perseverance rover — the most-advanced rover ever sent to Mars, affectionately known as Percy — successfully touched down on the Red Planet on February 18th at 3:55 EST. This ambitious NASA mission — officially called Mars 2020 — is the third of three spacecraft to arrive at Mars in the last two weeks.
The SUV-sized rover will explore the Martian surface, looking for water, and possible signs of ancient microbial life which may have once made their home on Mars.
The spacecraft set down in Jezero Crater, site of an ancient Martian lake.
“Perseverance is NASA’s most ambitious Mars rover mission yet, focused scientifically on finding out whether there was ever any life on Mars in the past. To answer this question, the landing team will have its hands full getting us to Jezero Crater — the most challenging Martian terrain ever targeted for a landing,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, describes.
The Jezero Delta was Shining Like a National Guitar
Jezero Crater, a vast impact basin 45 kilometers (28 miles) across, was once home to an ancient Martian lake.
Planetary scientists believe this Martian crater is home to a delta formed by running water, similar to the Mississippi Delta in the United States.
This delta may be a perfect place to find signs of ancient Martian life, researchers speculate. Geological evidence suggests Jezero Crater may also still show rings left in rock from water, similar to a bathtub ring. These rings could be filled with signs of ancient microbial life.
However, Jezero Crater is also filled with steep cliffs, boulder fields, and sand dunes, making this NASA’s most-difficult Martian landing yet. Fewer than half the spacecraft designed to touchdown on Mars have done so successfully.
The atmosphere of Mars makes landing on that world excruciatingly difficult. NASA controllers — and space enthusiasts around the globe — burst into celebration when confirmation of a successful touchdown was received at mission control.
Domo Arigato, Martian Roboto
To meet the challenges of atmospheric entry and landing, NASA utilized the most complex landing system ever devised for such a touchdown, including the use of artificial intelligence. At the current Earth-Mars distance, it takes about 11 minutes for radio signals to travel between the two worlds, increasing the usefulness of AI to manage the landing.
“The symbolism seemed so apt. The same technology that can propel apocalyptic weapons from continent to continent would enable the first human voyage to another planet. It was a choice of fitting mythic power: to embrace the planet named after, rather than the madness ascribed to, the god of war.” ― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
The rover, complete with Ingenuity — the first helicopter designed to fly on another planet — separated from its protective carrier 17 minutes before touching down on Mars.
Perseverance hit the upper atmosphere of Mars at 19,500 kph (12,100 MPH). While screaming through the Martian atmosphere, air friction heated the heat shield of Perseverance up to 1,300 C (2,370 F).
Supersonic parachutes deployed by artificial intelligence using Range Trigger technology began the process of slowing down Perseverance for landing. Roughly 20 seconds following the deployment of these parachutes, the heat shield separated from the Martian rover. This allowed Perseverance to utilize a radar and Terrain-Relative Navigation to choose a safe landing site.
The back shell of the spacecraft parted from the rover, and a jetpack connected to the rover ignited, further slowing the vehicle.
A skycrane lowered Perseverance down, in what has become known as a sky crane maneuver. This slowed the vehicle down to just 2.7 kph (1.7 MPH) — the speed of a slow walk — just prior to reaching the ruddy surface of Mars.
Once settled in on Mars, the first task for the rover is to snap photos of its new home, and send them to everyone waiting, watching this historic mission from here on Earth. The first image came in just minutes after landing.
While traveling around Mars, Perseverance will collect samples of Martian soil, placing them in canisters, readying for a journey to Earth aboard two other craft, as part of the Mars Sample Return mission.
“Perseverance is the first step in bringing back rock and regolith from Mars. We don’t know what these pristine samples from Mars will tell us. But what they could tell us is monumental — including that life might have once existed beyond Earth,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA, states.
The nuclear-powered Perseverance rover is readied for exploration with seven instruments, including laser/camera pair called SHERLOC and WATSON, designed to explore Martian geology and chemistry. Perseverance also includes the greatest number of cameras ever brought to the Red Planet.
James Maynard is the founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat.
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