The landing of NASA’s next Mars rover is now only a few days away.
The car-sized Perseverance rover, the center of NASA’s $ 2.7 billion March 2020 mission, will hunt for signs of ancient life, collect and cache samples for future return to Earth, and help demonstrate a range of new exploration technologies, among other tasks.
But before it can embark on any of the groundbreaking work, endurance must try its touchdown inside Mars’ Jezero crater February 18th. There is no guarantee that the rover will survive this terrifying ordeal; over the years, only 40% of all Mars surface emissions have landed successfully.
However, the depressing figure is skewed by many flaws in the first few decades of the space age. NASA’s latest record on Red Planet is quite encouraging (knocking on wood), and Mars 2020 will use a proven landing strategy – the “sky crane” technique successfully used by its predecessor, Curiosity rover, who touched on in August 2012 and remains active today.
Here’s a brief overview of the Mars 2020 mission and its upcoming boarding, disembarkation and landing operations (EDL) to get you ready for the big day.
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What is the Mars Rover Perseverance Mission?
Curiosity has assessed the habitability of ancient Mars and examined the planet’s transition long ago from relatively hot and wet to extremely cold and dry. The March 2020 mission, launched on July 30, 2020, takes the next step, actively looking for signs of the old Red Planet life. No surface emission has ever done this, though NASA’s two Viking landers looked for preserved Martian life after touching it in 1976.
Perseverance will also help bring Mars life hunt down to earth. The rover collects and stores several dozen samples that a joint NASA European Space Agency campaign will draw to our planet already in 2031. Once the pristine Mars material is on Earth, scientists in laboratories around the world can examine it using far more powerful and accurate equipment than a single rover can carry to the red planet.
March 2020 also has a large technology demonstration component. Eg small helicopter named Ingenuity flying to the red planet on the belly of endurance. In the early days of the Mars 2020 mission, which is scheduled to last at least one Mars year (approximately 687 Earth days), Ingenuity will make a few test flights and try to become the first rotor aircraft ever to fly on a world beyond The earth. Success could open up Mars for extensive air exploration in the future, NASA officials say.
The 2,260-lb. (1,025 kg) Endurance also carries an instrument called MOXIE, which is an abbreviation for “Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment.” (And ISRU stands for “in situ resource utilization.”) MOXIE will generate oxygen from the thin, carbon-dominated Mars atmosphere, showing technology that, if scaled up, could help humanity gain a foothold on the red planet, NASA has officials said.
You can learn a lot more about endurance and its scientific goals at ours March 2020 reference page.
Where does endurance land?
NASA announced in November 2018 that endurance will explore the Jezero crater, a 28-kilometer-wide (45-kilometer) hole in the earth about 18 degrees north of the Mars equator.
More than 3.5 billion years ago, Jezero hosted a lake the size of Lake Tahoe and an associated river delta. And NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has seen clay minerals formed in the presence of liquid water on the floor of the crater.
“On Earth, scientists have found such clays in the Mississippi River Delta, where microbial life has been found embedded in the rock itself,” agency officials wrote in a statement. description of Jezero. “This makes the Jezero Crater a great place to meet the Mars 2020 mission’s scientific goal of studying a potentially habitable environment that can still retain evidence of past lives.”
And if you were wondering (or hoping): a meeting between perseverance and curiosity will not happen. Jezero is about 3,700 km from Gale Crater, which Curiosity has been exploring since 2012.
How and when will endurance land?
Speaking of curiosity: The older mission provided a template for Mars 2020 in a number of ways. The body of endurance is very similar to Curiosity, for example, and the two missions share the same dramatic “seven minutes of terror” EDL strategy.
As Mars 2020 approaches the red planet in the afternoon of February 18, the spacecraft will launch its “cruise”, the part that housed solar panels, fuel tanks and radios needed for its long interplanetary journey. Ten minutes after this milestone, Mars 2020 will hit the atmosphere of the red planet at a speed of almost 12,500 km / h (20,000 km / h), and the countdown to terror will begin to tick.
Although Mars’ atmosphere is only 1% as thick as Earth’s, it’s significant enough to slow Mars 2020 dramatically via drag. But this service has a price: frictional heating, which will generate temperatures as high as 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit (1,300 degrees Celsius) on the surface of the spacecraft’s heat shield. The endurance itself, of course, does not experience such extremes; it’s about room temperature inside Mars 2020’s protective aeroshell, which consists of the heat shield and a piece called the back shell.
Mars 2020 will deploy its 70.5-foot (21.5 m) supersonic parachute about four minutes after atmospheric entry, when the spacecraft is braked to a much more manageable 940 km / h (1,512 km / h). To get the timing of the implementation just right, Mars 2020 uses a new technology called Range Trigger, which Curiosity did not have.
Twenty seconds after the supersonic chute has taken on its appearance, Mars 2020 will shed its heat shield and expose endurance to the fast-moving Red Planet air. The rover will then begin documenting its descent in detail, snapping images of the Martian surface and using radar to determine its altitude.
These photos will be used by another new technology that Mars 2020 will showcase – Terrain-related navigation, which involves comparing pedigree images with a built-in map.
“Mission team members have previously mapped the safest areas in the landing zone,” NASA officials wrote in a detailed summary of the March 2020 EDL sequence. “If endurance can tell it is heading for more dangerous terrain, it chooses the safest place it can reach and gets ready for the next dramatic step.”
The parachute will lower Mars 2020 down to approx. 200 km / h – still too fast for a safe landing. Then about six minutes out of the seven minutes of terror, at an altitude of 2,100 m (2,100 m), the rear shell and the attached parachute will fall away, and the “cloud crane” descent phase of the mission will kick into gear.
The sky crane’s eight thrusters shoot downwards and eventually brake March 2020 to only 2.7 km / h. Then, at an altitude of 65 feet (20 m), the crane will lower its endurance to the ground on long cables. After the rover presses down safely, it will cut the cables and the descent phase will fly off to crash-land on purpose a safe distance away.
This touchdown takes place at 15:55 EST (1855 GMT) on February 18, if all goes according to plan.
Yes, this sounds a little crazy, especially considering that March 2020 will have to do everything alone without the help of mission control. (On February 18, it takes more than 11 minutes for a signal to travel from Earth to Mars – longer than the entire EDL sequence.) But it worked for Curiosity back in 2012.
And we will be able to follow all the EDL actions in (almost) real time: NASA provides coverage of the big event that starts at. 14:15 EST (1715 GMT) on February 18th. You can see it stay here on Space.com, with permission from NASA, or directly via the space organization.
And in the eerie days of a successful landing (knocking on wood again), we were able to get an unprecedented treat – high-quality video and audio of Mars 2020’s touchdown sequence thanks to HD EDL cameras and a associated microphone.
Visit Space.com on February 18th for full coverage of the Mars Rover Perseverance landing.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.