NASA is preparing to land the Perseverance Rover, along with the first small helicopter, on the red planet next month.
Despite a mostly successful background landing robots on Mars, it’s still a daring operation and a lot is riding on the new robotic mission, which is carrying a new suite of science instruments, microphones and the ability to collect samples to be returned to Earth on a later mission.
Only about 40% of the missions ever sent to Mars have been successful, according to NASA. Perseverance will be the fifth rover that NASA has attempted to land on Mars.
The goal of NASA’s newest, most advanced rover yet is to seek out signs of previous life on the planet.
The touchdown is slated to happen Feb. 18. After arrival, the wheeling robot will explore Jezero Crater, a large impact crater about 28 miles wide. Scientists say this crater was once a lake and it’s the best place to find clues of ancient microbial life.
While NASA has a successful record with landing its last few rovers on Mars, Matt Wallace, Mars 2020 deputy project manager, said this one is different.
“This is the biggest vehicle, we’ve ever attempted to land on Mars, it weighs in over a metric ton,” Wallace said. “And it is carrying 50% more science and technology payload than Curiosity, its closest relative, which landed in 2012.”
There are new landing technologies and techniques NASA will be utilizing to give Perseverance the best chance at survival. NASA Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead Allen Chen described this part of the mission as the “most critical and most dangerous” saying “mission success is never assured.”
There is a reason NASA engineers refer to minutes leading up to landing on Mars as “seven minutes of terror.” The spacecraft carrying Mars 2020 will hit the Martian atmosphere traveling at over 12,000 mph using its thrusters to steer toward its landing target.
“After slowing down to supersonic speeds, Perseverance will deploy a large 70-foot-diameter parachute, while still traveling almost twice the speed of sound,” Chen explained. “But the parachute alone isn’t enough to slow down Perseverance for landing. In fact, the spacecraft is still going more than 160 miles per hour.”
The heat shield protecting the rover during entry will jettison away and that’s when NASA’s new radar and navigation system will kick in, according to Chen.
During the last mile of descent, Perseverance will fire up its engines flying to a safe landing spot identified by its Terrain Relative Navigation system, known as the rover’s eyes and ears, and slow it down to about 1.5 mph.
“She’s got an extra brain in there to help figure out where she’s going, and an extra camera in there to give her her eyes to see what’s out there and match it up with that when she’s figuring out where she is, she can find a spot,” Chen said.
All along the way, formidable challenges will present themselves in the form of sand, boulders and impact craters near the target landing area in a 3.5 billion-year-old lake bed.
Finally --but only minutes later-- Perseverance will lower itself from a rocket powered jetpack descent stage and maneuver in for a gentle touchdown right on its new and improved wheels.
During all this, NASA teams will be in the dark, hence the scariest seven minutes of the mission.
“Because of how long it takes for radio signals to get back from Mars all the way to Earth. Perseverance have to do this all on our own. We can’t help it during this period,” Chen said.
After hopefully surviving a landing full of perils, NASA will make sure all of the robot’s instruments are functioning and then Percy gets to work.
The rover has a helicopter, named Ingenuity, strapped to its belly that will deploy shortly after a safe landing on the red planet.
Also for the first time, there are two microphones on the rover. One is on Mars 2020′s SuperCam, the head of the rover, and another that will record the entry, descent and landing. If the microphones survive, Wallace said it could record the sounds of the rover’s “wheels crunching over the surface as we drive” and “hear that big rotary percussive drill, that big jackhammer drill out on the end of the robot arm.”
The rover’s arm is part of Perseverance’s mission that includes a complicated plan to collect a Mars sample that NASA will work with international partners to collect and bring back to Earth.
“First, Perseverance, will drill and prepare samples for return and cash them on the surface of Mars,” NASA director of the planetary science division Lori Glaze said Wednesday. “In 2026, a fetch rover will be launched to collect those samples and bring them to a rocket that will launch them into orbit around Mars. Another orbiter will rendezvous and capture those samples for safe delivery to Earth. "
Glaze said an independent review board looked at the ambitious plan and determined the agency is prepared to take on the sample collection campaign.
Outside of the long-term sample collection, the rover will be hunting on the dry lake bed for signs of clues to the Martian past.
”We’re looking for signs of ancient water mostly on Mars and whether or not there is a lot of water, liquid water, on the surface today is still an open question,” Mars 2020 science team member Briony Horgan, with Purdue University, said. “This mission is really about looking for signs of ancient water. And we know from all the missions that have come before this that there was lots and lots of water on ancient Mars billions of years ago so that’s really what we’re targeting is things that could have lived in this ancient watery environments.”
NASA plans to carry live coverage of the landing beginning at 1:15 p.m. on Feb. 18.