After nearly seven months traveling more than 292 million miles through space, as well as years of work and planning by staff at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Perseverance Mars rover is slated to touch down on the Red Planet on Thursday afternoon, and the public is invited to follow along live on the historic mission.
If all goes well, the SUV-sized rover will land gently at Mars’ Jezero crater to search for signs of ancient life and prepare the way for human explorers to follow, according to JPL. As of Tuesday, the rover and spacecraft carrying it were “healthy and on target” for a landing attempt at about 12:55 p.m.
Scientists and engineers who have been working for years to make the project a reality were busily preparing for the long-awaited landing, which will be the riskiest and most precise yet attempted and culminate in a fiery seven-minute plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere dubbed by JPL “Seven Minutes of Terror.”
A system of parachutes and rockets is then designed to lower the rover safely to the surface on a tether using a device christened a “sky crane.”
“The Perseverance team is putting the final touches on the complex choreography required to land in Jezero Crater,” said Perseverance Deputy Project Manager Jennifer Trosper. “No Mars landing is guaranteed, but we have been preparing a decade to put this rover’s wheels down on the surface of Mars and get to work.”
The mission is a complicated one, but also provides unprecedented opportunities for discovery, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen said.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Thursday’s landing operations will be broadcast live on NASA TV at https://www.nasa.gov/nasalive.
“You will get to watch the drama of Perseverance’s entry, descent, and landing (EDL) – the riskiest portion of the rover’s mission that some engineers call the “seven minutes of terror” – live,” according to the JPL statement. Commentary is to begin at 11:15 a.m.
The rover is scheduled to separate from its spacecraft at 12:38 p.m., then touch down at 12:55 p.m.
Confirmation of each step will actually be received more than 11 minutes after they occur, as it will take that amount of time for radio signals to reach the Earth from Mars.
Once safely on the ground, Perseverance’s first task will be to take photos of its surroundings and send them back to Earth, according to JPL. Scientists will spend about a month inspecting the rover and loading new software before attempting to take it for a drive.
Meanwhile, a parallel team will be preparing their 4-pound helicopter called Ingenuity, which hitched a ride to Mars on the belly of the Perseverance rover, for what they hope will be the first powered aerodynamic flight on another world.
Ingenuity Project Manager MiMi Aung said her team will be “on the edge of our seats” with the Perseverance team on landing day.
“We can’t wait until the rover and the helicopter are both safely on the surface of Mars and ready for action,” Aung said.
In another anticipated first, Perseverance will collect samples of Martian rock and dust, then store them to be retrieved by a future mission. If successful, the endeavor would result in the first-ever samples of Martian material returned to Earth.
Jezero crater was selected as a landing site to its geological history, according to JPL. Scientists believe it was once the site of an ancient river and lake.
“Scientists think the environment here was likely to have preserved signs of any life that gained a foothold billions of years ago – but Jezero also has steep cliffs, sand dunes, and boulder fields,” according to the JPL statement.
Any mission to the Red Planet comes with risks.
“Landing on Mars is difficult — only about 50% of all previous Mars landing attempts have succeeded — and these geological features make it even more so,” the statement said.
More information on the Perseverance Mars rover and its mission is available online at https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions/mars-2020-perseverance-rover.