In a bid to land on Mars about seven months after embarking on the ambitious mission, a NASA robotic explorer is set to take riskiest step on Thursday. “Seven minutes of terror” is what the space agency calls it.
"That descent stage takes us all the way down to about 20 meters off the ground. That's when we start the skycrane maneuver."
— NASA (@NASA) February 18, 2021
The Perseverance rover, which is headed to Jezero Crater, is on a quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on the Red planet. But before that, the explorer has to land in one piece braving a risky descent.
The six-wheeled car-size plutonium-powered vehicle is aiming for the trickiest target ever attempted by NASA, which is 5–by-4-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and fields of rock, any of which could put brakes on the $3 billion mission.
Scientists believe that if life ever flourished on Mars, it would have happened 3 billion to 4 billion years ago, when water still flowed on the planet.
The landing of the NASA rover will be the third visit to the planet in just over a week; two spacecraft sent by UAE and China swung into orbit around it on successive days last week.
All three missions, including UAE and China’s, lifted off in July to take advantage of close alignment of Earth and Mars, travelling some 300 million miles in about seven months. The biggest, Perseverance, also the most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, stood to become the ninth spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, every one of them from the US.
All about the landing
The spacecraft is expected to touchdown around 3:55 pm (Eastern time) Thursday, which would be 2:25 am (IST) early Friday morning. It takes a nail-biting 11 1/2 minutes for a signal that would confirm success to reach Earth.
Perseverance’s descent has been described by NASA as “seven minutes of terror,” in which flight controllers can only watch helplessly. So far, weather conditions appear favourable in the Martian northern hemisphere spring.
The pre-programmed spacecraft was designed to hit the Martian atmosphere at 12,100 mph (19,500 kph), then use a parachute to slow it down and a rocket-steered platform known as a sky crane to lower the rover the rest of the way to the surface.
Mars has proved a treacherous place: In the span of less than three months in 1999, a US spacecraft was destroyed upon entering orbit since engineers mixed up metric and English units, and an American lander crashed on Mars after its engines cut out prematurely.
Percy, as it is nicknamed, was designed to drill down with its 7-foot (2-meter) arm and collect rock samples that might hold signs of bygone microscopic life. The plan called for three to four dozen chalk-size samples to be sealed in tubes and set aside on Mars to be retrieved by a fetch rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship, with the goal of getting them back to Earth as early as 2031.
NASA is teaming up with European Space Agency to bring the rocks home. The only way to confirm — or rule out — signs of past life is to analyze the samples in the world’s best labs. Instruments small enough to be sent to Mars wouldn’t have the necessary precision.
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Planetary science director Lori Glaze said the Mars sample return project is probably the most challenging thing NASA has ever attempted.
China’s spacecraft includes a smaller rover that also will be seeking evidence of life — if it makes it safely down from orbit in May or June.
Scientists hope to answer one of the central questions of theology, philosophy and space exploration. “Are we alone in this sort of vast cosmic desert, just flying through space, or is life much more common? Does it just emerge whenever and wherever the conditions are ripe?” said deputy project scientist Ken Williford.
“Big, basic questions, and we don’t know the answers yet. So we’re really on the verge of being able to potentially answer these enormous questions.”