On Thursday afternoon NASA’s most ambitious self-driving science lab will attempt the most challenging Mars landing yet attempted. The Perseverance mission is carrying a suite of 7 science instruments that will search for signs of life, launch a drone helicopter, and record the planet’s audio for the first time – but conducting those experiments relies solely on whether “Percy” can stick the landing. (Percy is short for Perseverance)
Historically, about half of the Mars landings attempted by the US have failed, and Perseverance will be the largest rover to attempt it. The location complicates things, too: The rover is aiming for Jezero Crater, a dry remnant of what scientists believe was a river delta 3.5 billion years ago.
It’s good to remember that, difficult as it may be, NASA has landed on Mars 8 times and all the missions exceeded their life expectancy.
You’ll be able to follow along with the news from mission control on the NASA TV Public Channel, the NASA App, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. The official NASA TV stream will begin at 2:15 pm EST on Thursday, February 18.
Here are some milestones to look for:
At 3:38 pm, 10 minutes before entering the atmosphere, the cruise stage should separate from the shell carrying the rover.
Perseverance is planned to enter the atmosphere at 3:48 pm, kicking off the “seven minutes of terror.”
This refers to the time it takes for signals from Mars, traveling at the speed of light, to reach the network on Earth.
The heat-protected shell should then glide toward Mars for about 14 minutes before deploying a parachute and dropping its heat shield. The parachute should deploy around 3:52 pm).
After a couple minutes of parachuting, the craft’s back shell will release Perseverance, carried by a sort of jetpack for a smooth, propelled descent. This “sky crane” will lower Perseverance on nylon tethers, detach, and fly off.
NASA hopes to touch down at 3:55 pm and share the first image about five minutes later.
There are currently 3 new missions at Mars this week, from China, UAE, and USA.
This mission is unlike others, in that includes the Mars Helicopter, known as Ingenuity. NASA is calling it a “technology demonstration.” If successful, it will be the first powered flight on another world. 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.
Like the first powered flight on Earth, Ingenuity’s first flight, scheduled for the spring, will be short and close to the ground. If all goes well, a series of progressively more ambitious flights are planned over a 30-Martian-day period (just a little longer than on Earth).
Another fun note: the destined touchdown point will be familiar to Trekkies everywhere. In the Star Trek universe, Utopia Planitia is the fleet yard where many of the ships bearing the name Enterprise were constructed (the first, the NCC-1701, was built in the San Francisco shipyards). The area is mentioned in Star Trek on the inauguration plaque on each Enterprise bridge, but is first shown directly to the audience in Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Lower Decks. Jezero Crater happens to be in the Utopia Planitia region of Mars.
The specific location in Utopia Planitia is Jezero Crater. JPL scientists chose the site because they are are certain that it was once filled with water. It has an inlet, and an outlet, and at the inlet there is a sedimentary delta where material was carried in and deposited by flowing water – so in effect, it was a freshwater Martian lake. There is no better place to look for evidence of past life on Mars than this crater.
Perseverence packs a lot of new technology that its predecessors Curiosity and Discovery did not have. It’s bigger, weighing in at 2,260 pounds (278 pounds heavier than Curiosity and Discovery were), and capable of driving about 200 meters per day, building an internal map of the surface it’s driving on as it goes. Its cameras are higher resolution, it carries spectrometers, and a subsurface radar so it can actually look beneath the surface without having to dig into it. It also has a sampler that can package up and store mineral samples, leaving those samples in little tubes for potential pickup by a later mission.
It also contains an experiment to see how much oxygen can be generated from the Martian atmosphere, which is mostly carbon dioxide. The results of that experiment are important to the fortunes of any possible future travelers. Even if it were pure oxygen, by the way, you still couldn’t breathe it – the atmosphere on Mars is about 100 times thinner than it is here on Earth.