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What to expect from NASA’s ‘Perseverance’ Mars landing

Perseverance, NASA’s most sophisticated rover ever, is due to land on the surface of Mars on Thursday. This is your pre-event guide on what to expect and how to follow the mission throughout the year.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is just 48 hours from making its descent onto the surface of Mars on the 18th February 2021. $2.7bn metric tonnes of steel are currently hurtling toward the red planet at 12,000 mph – should go absolutely swimmingly with no hiccups, right?

It’s been seven months since we wrote about NASA’s rover kick-starting its 292 million mile voyage from the launching pad at Cape Canaveral Florida to the Red Planet. NASA’s experts initially said that Perseverance would likely touch down on Mars in mid-February and the predictions were spot on.

Oh we love it when a plan comes together.

Provided NASA manages to ground the thing without any major hitches on Thursday, Perseverance will begin searching for answers to one of our solar system’s big questions: was there ever any life present on Mars?

The rover will explore a giant crater known as the Jezero Crater – the site of what is believed to be an ancient lake that existed some 3.9 billion years ago – and will search for microfossils in the rocks and soil there.

How can I watch the landing?

We’ll start with the bad news.

While some were hoping to kick back and watch Perseverance land on a livestream (maybe with the Red Planet theme tune blasting?), unfortunately we don’t yet possess the technology to make that happen.

NASA, however, is inviting people to tune into its countdown and landing commentary, which will hopefully confirm that the SUV sized rover has safely landed in one piece.

Simply head to NASA’s official website, public TV channel, or its profiles on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Twitch at 2:15pm ET on Feb 18th and bring your lucky charms along. For some level of visual representation, you can also follow the rover’s progress through a virtual experience of the landing.

Weeks after touch down, we’ll hopefully get to see glorious shots of Mars from the rover’s perspective and to hear local acoustic signals from its integrated microphones.

The dreaded landing and seven minutes of terror

In line to be the ninth successful (hopefully) landing on Mars, Perseverance is fast approaching what NASA describes as the infamous ‘seven minutes of terror.’

This term refers to a seven minute period of radio silence between operators and the lander unit as it enters the Martian atmosphere. The one way signal it takes for radio waves to travel from Earth to Mars is around 14 minutes, which means the seven minutes it takes for Perseverance to land will occur without any remote intervention from NASA technicians. You think your job is stressful, eh?

In the run up to this moment, ground teams will input EDL (entry, descent, and landing) controls before beginning the agonising wait. Hurtling towards the surface at 12,000 mph, the lander is targeting a site surrounded by sand dunes, steep cliffs, and boulders, which will bring into play a neat form of AI called Terrain-Relative Navigation.

Taking pictures of the rapidly approaching ground, the machine learning system will determine the safest spot to land and use shifters to scoot up to 2000 feet in any direction. From here, the unit’s heat shield will be discarded, a 70 foot parachute will unravel 1.3 miles above the ground, and retrorockets will fire to slow the descent to around 1.7 mph.

Eventually, nylon strings will pop from a floor hatch and bring the rover’s wheels into contact with the surface for the first time. All sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?


What is the rover’s first mission?

Provided all goes well – and previous missions suggest it should – the rover will undergo a ‘checkout’ period to ensure all its systems are in working order for the two-year mission ahead.

As we’ve previously touched on, the eventual destination is the Jezero Crater, where the rover will aim to collect and analyse fossilised evidence of past microbial life, but the ‘epic journey’ to arrive there will be around 15 miles long.

Travelling at 0.1 mph – which, bizarrely, is three times faster than any previous rover – Perseverance will take two years to navigate the harsh terrain of Mars. That’s not to say we’ll have to suffer through our own tense period of radio silence though.

While on its set path, Perseverance will simultaneously perform experiments to help us better map out the geology of the planet, whilst also trying to convert Martian carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. It goes without saying that such a breakthrough would bring us a whole lot closer to actually exploring the red planet first hand, so this aspect of the mission is arguably just as important.

Naturally, Perseverance already has its own social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, so we can all keep up to date with any major news as it breaks to NASA. I wonder if the rover has a built in selfie stick.

 

Ingenuity: the first outer Earth helicopter

While Perseverance is grabbing all the limelight in the mainstream media ahead of the imminent launch, it’s worth mentioning that NASA is planning to run experiments on a whole different variety of space vehicle too.

Along for the ride is ‘Ingenuity,’ the first ever space helicopter developed and tested in the wild. Looking to pave the way for more advanced robotic aircraft to be used in future missions to Mars, both robotic and human, this mini-copter will drop to a landing zone mapped out by Perseverance shortly after operators get their bearings of the land.

Weighing just four pounds, and comprised of little more than four carbon fibre blades, solar cells, and batteries, Ingenuity is designed to make the most of Mars’ ‘incredibly thin’ atmosphere. In short, operators want to find out how feasible aviation is on other planets, because it could open up a host of new possibilities down the line.

Once it establishes a local helipad, Ingenuity operators will plan for five test flights during an initial 30-day period. All I know is, whoever they hand the controls to had better have a steady hand.

So there we have it, everything you need to know about the upcoming Mars launch all packaged into a single story. You’re welcome.

Your job now is to kick back from the comfort of your own sofa, bathtub, or beanbag and watch NASA as they sweat over potentially destroying billions of dollars in state-of-the-art engineering. Let’s pray everything goes well.

 

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