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Destination Mars

Published: 21st Feb 2021 12:19 am

“Take that, Jezero!” a flight controller called out as Perseverance promptly sent back two grainy, black-and-white photos of Mars’ pockmarked, pimply-looking surface, the rover’s shadow visible in the frame of one picture.

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The largest, most advanced rover NASA sent to another world, touched down on Mars on Thursday, after a 203-day journey of 472 million kilometres. The car-size, plutonium-powered vehicle, arrived at Jezero Crater, hitting NASA’s smallest and trickiest target yet: a 5-by-4-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and fields of rock, accomplishing the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on Mars.

It was a desperate wait for the flight controllers as the preprogrammed spacecraft hit the thin Martian atmosphere at 19,500 kph, or 16 times the speed of sound, slowing as it plummeted. It released its 70-foot parachute and then used a rocket-steered platform known as a sky crane to lower the rover the final 60 or so feet to the surface.

It took a tension-filled 11 1/2 minutes for the signal to reach Earth. “Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life,” flight controller Swati Mohan announced to back-slapping, fist-bumping colleagues. Ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, leaped to their feet, thrust their arms in the air and cheered in both triumph and relief on receiving confirmation that the six-wheeled Perseverance had touched down on the Red Planet, long a deathtrap for incoming spacecraft.

“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the US, and space exploration globally — when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, to rewrite the textbooks,” said NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

Race for Red Planet

The landing marks the third visit to Mars in just over a week. Two spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China swung into orbit around Mars on February 9 and 10, respectively. All three missions lifted off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars, that happens only once every two years.

Both the UAE and China are newcomers at Mars, where more than half of Earth’s emissaries have failed. China’s first Mars mission, a joint effort with Russia in 2011, never made it past Earth’s orbit.

Called Amal, or Hope in Arabic, the Gulf nation’s spacecraft is seeking an especially high orbit — 22,000 km by 44,000 km — all the better to monitor the Martian weather. China’s duo — called Tianwen-1, or ‘Quest for Heavenly Truth’ — will remain paired in orbit until May, when the rover separates to descend to the dusty, ruddy surface. If all goes well, it will be only the second country to land successfully on the red planet. China’s spacecraft includes a smaller rover that also will be seeking evidence of life.

Two older NASA landers are still humming along on Mars: 2012’s Curiosity rover and 2018’s InSight.

Percy’s Adventures

Perseverance, the biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA became the ninth spacecraft since the 1970s to successfully land on Mars, every one of them from the US. The 1,026-kilogramme “robotic geologist and astrobiologist” will undergo several weeks of testing before it begins its two-year science investigation of Jezero Crater.

Over the next two years, Percy, as it is nicknamed, will use its 7-foot arm to drill down and collect rock samples with possible signs of bygone microscopic life. Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside on Mars to be retrieved by a fetch rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship. The goal is to get them back to Earth by 2031.

In addition to mining the rocks, Perseverance will conduct an experiment in which it will convert small amounts of the mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere into oxygen, a process that could be a boon to future astronauts by providing breathable air and an ingredient for rocket fuel.

While the rover will investigate the rock and sediment of Jezero’s ancient lakebed and river delta to characterise the region’s geology and past climate, a fundamental part of its mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life.

Highly Sophiscated

The Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrumentation 2 sensor suite collected data about Mars’ atmosphere during entry, and the Terrain-Relative Navigation system autonomously guided the spacecraft during final descent.

The data from both are expected to help future human missions land more safely and with larger payloads. The US space agency said that Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable science cameras on Perseverance’s remote sensing mast, or head, creates high-resolution, colour 3D panoramas of the Martian landscape. Also located on the mast, the SuperCam uses a pulsed laser to study the chemistry of rocks and sediment and has its own microphone to help scientists better understand the property of the rocks, including their hardness.

The rover is also equipped with a record 25 cameras and two microphones, many of them turned on during descent. Among the never-before-seen views, NASA intends to send back: the enormous supersonic parachute billowing open and the ground getting closer.

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. “We’re really on the verge of being able to potentially answer these enormous questions.”

Ingenuity Helicopter

The diminutive Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, currently attached to the belly of Perseverance, is a technology demonstration that will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. As the rover surveys and looks for evidence of past life around the Jezero crater, the Ingenuity helicopter’s expected flight on Mars 31 days from now will be a test demonstrator.

The 1.8 kilogramme chopper is about 0.49 metre tall with two rotor blades of about 1.2 metre wingspan stacked above each other. Over the course of its mission, Ingenuity is expected to make five attempted flights each lasting for about 90 seconds at a stretch.

Back from Mars

NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency (ESA) to bring the rocks home. The only way to confirm — or rule out — signs of past life is to analyse the samples in the world’s best labs.

“It’s really the most extraordinary, mind-boggingly complicated and will-be history-making exploration campaign,” David Parker, the European Space Agency’s director of human and robotic exploration, said. The Mars Sample Return campaign will allow scientists to study samples collected by Perseverance to search for definitive signs of past life using instruments too large and complex to send to the Red Planet.

“Perseverance is the first step in bringing back rock and regolith from Mars. We don’t know what these pristine samples from Mars will tell us. But what they could tell us is monumental — including that life might have once existed beyond Earth,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA.

Equipped with seven primary science instruments, the most cameras ever sent to Mars, and its exquisitely complex sample caching system — Perseverance will scour the Jezero region for fossilised remains of ancient microscopic Martian life, taking samples along the way.

“While we’ll learn a lot with the great instruments we have aboard the rover, it may very well require the far more capable laboratories and instruments back here on Earth to tell us whether our samples carry evidence that Mars once harboured life,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division; providing a peek into NASA’s strategy after the samples reach home.

Destination MarsJezero Crater

Some 45 km wide, Jezero Crater sits on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, where an ancient meteorite impact left behind a large crater some 1,200 kilometres across. This event is known as Isidis impact, and it forever changed the rock at the base of the crater. A later, smaller meteorite impact created the Jezero Crater within the Isidis impact basin.

Scientists believe the area was once flooded with water and was home to an ancient river delta. Jezero Crater tells a story of the on-again, off-again nature of the wet past of Mars. More than 3.5 billion years ago, river channels spilled over the crater wall and created a lake. Scientists see evidence that water carried clay minerals from the surrounding area into the crater lake.

Conceivably, microbial life could have lived in Jezero during one or more of these wet times. If so, signs of their remains might be found in lakebed or shoreline sediments. Scientists will study how the region formed and evolved, seek signs of past life, and collect samples of Mars rock and soil that might preserve these signs. On Earth, scientists have found such clays in the Mississippi river delta, where microbial life has been found embedded in the rock itself.

Treacherous Mars

Mars has proved a treacherous place. In the span of less than three months in 1999, a US spacecraft was destroyed upon entering orbit because engineers had mixed up metric and English units, and an American lander crashed on Mars after its engines cut out prematurely.
Smashed Russian and European spacecraft litter the landscape along with a failed US lander. About a dozen orbiters missed the mark. In 2011, a Mars-bound Chinese orbiter that was part of a Russian mission didn’t make it out of Earth orbit. Only the US has successfully touched down on Mars — eight times, beginning with two Viking missions in the 1970s. An American lander and rover are in operation today.

China’s attempt will involve a parachute, rocket firings and airbags. Its proposed landing site is a vast, rock-strewn plain called Utopia Planitia, where the US Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976. Before the arrival this week of the Chinese spacecraft and the UAE’s orbiter, six other spacecraft were already operating around Mars: three US, two European and one Indian.

Agencies, NASA

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