NASA landed a new robotic rover on Mars today, its most ambitious effort in decades to directly study whether there was ever life on the red planet.
While the agency has landed other missions on Mars, the $2.7 billion robotic explorer named Perseverance carries a sophisticated set of scientific tools that will bring advanced capabilities to the search for life beyond our planet.
I’m safe on Mars. Perseverance will get you anywhere.
— NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) February 18, 2021
Perseverance was the third robotic visitor from Earth to arrive at the red planet this month.
Last week, two other spacecraft, Hope from the United Arab Emirates and Tianwen-1 from China, entered orbit around Mars.
But NASA’s spacecraft did not go into orbit first. Instead it zipped along a direct path to the surface.
At 3:48 p.m. Eastern time, controllers at the mission operations center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, Calif., received word from Perseverance that it had entered the top of the Martian atmosphere at a speed of more than 12,000 miles per hour.
The spacecraft was beginning the landing maneuvers that would bring it to a soft stop in just seven anxiety-drenched minutes.
All that anyone on Earth could do was watch and hope that Perseverance performed as designed.
At Mars, the fate of the rover was already determined.
Mars is currently 126 million miles from Earth.
Radio signals, traveling at the speed of light, take more than 11 minutes to travel from there to here.
That means that when the message announcing the start of the landing sequence reached Earth, the rover had already been on Mars for four minutes.
The only uncertainty was whether it was safe there in one piece, or crashed into many pieces, another human-made crater on the surface of Mars The atmosphere of NASA’s operations center — more sparsely filled than previous Mars landings because of precautions required by the coronavirus pandemic — was pensively quiet.
There were periodic announcements of the spacecraft’s progress through the atmosphere: the deceleration and heating as it sliced through the thin Martian air, the deployment of a huge parachute even as it was still supersonic in speed, the shedding of the rover’s heat shield so that its cameras could navigate to its destination, the firing of rocket engines to further slow its descent.
In the final step, the rover was lowered at the end of a cable beneath a rocket-powered jetpack until it touched the surface.
At 3:55 p.m. cheers erupted in the control room as a member of the mission control announced that Perseverance was intact on the surface.
Perseverance’s destination is Jezero Crater.
The rover will explore the delta of a river that once flowed into a lake that filled the crater.
The piles of sediments are a promising place where the fossil chemical signatures of ancient Martian microbes might still be preserved today.
NASA’s new rover is carrying a four-pound helicopter called Ingenuity that will attempt something that has never been done before: the first controlled flight on another world in our solar system.
Flying on Mars is not a trivial endeavor. There is not much air there to push against to generate lift.
At the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is just 1/100th as dense as Earth’s.
The lesser gravity — one-third of what you feel here — helps with getting airborne.
But taking off from the surface of Mars is the equivalent of flying through air as thin as what would be found at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth.
No terrestrial helicopter has ever flown that high, and that’s more than twice the altitude that jetliners typically fly at.
NASA’s engineers used a series of materials and computer technology advancements to overcome a number of these challenges.
About two months after landing, Perseverance will drop off the helicopter from its belly, and Ingenuity will attempt a series of about five test flights of increasing duration.
If the tests succeed, it could pave the way for future, larger Marscopters.
Having the option of using robotic fliers could greatly expand a space agency’s ability to study the Martian landscape in more detail, just as the transition from stationary landers to rovers did in earlier decades.
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