NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has successfully landed on Mars after a suspenseful descent and it has beamed back the first picture from the Martian surface. It’s the dramatic culmination of a long journey that began on July 30, 2020, with Perseverance traveling 130 million miles away from Earth.
The immense distance meant that NASA had to equip Perseverance to undertake the complex descent itself. It takes more than 11 minutes for a signal to go from Earth to Mars, and vice-versa, making it impossible for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team in Pasadena to control it manually. Instead, it beams back data to explain just what has been going on as it travels through the Mars atmosphere.
Everything needed to go right: the spacecraft had to make it through the initial high-speed entry, hitting the Martian atmosphere at 12,500 mph. The thin Mars atmosphere provided some initial slowing despite the increased pull of red planet’s gravity.
The rapid deceleration led to deployment of a huge parachute specially designed for Perseverance, then heat shield separation as it slowed. The sensors on the underside of the rover then took final readings of the surface of Mars.
Then there was the back-shell separation, which had to successful break away, complete with the parachute, before 16 rocket engines, eight to control during entry, another eight to control during the landing, had to work in perfect tandem to lower it down. Finally, there was the innovative Sky Crane, deposited the rover the last 70 feet, until its wheels hit the surface of Mars.
Perseverance’s journey to Mars took six months, and its descent was a huge challenge in itself, but now that it’s on the ground, the science is just starting. The rover has seven scientific instruments onboard, which will be used to gather and analyze samples of Martian soil, and more. It can drill into the soil to explore what’s under the surface, as well as use its 19 cameras to take long-distance or high-resolution imagery of the planet’s surface.
The mission will also attempt to identify water beneath surface and characterize weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.
The landing was in the Jaezero Carter which scientists speculate was a large lake about 3.5 billion years ago. Jezero today features a prominent river delta where water flowing through it deposited much sediment over the eons. The sediments in the delta likely include hydrated silica known to preserve microscopic fossils on Earth for billions of years.
It also had to carry the Mars helicopter, Ingenuity. It is expected to be the first example of powered flight on another planet.
Perseverance is designed as the first stage in an audacious plan by NASA to return samples from Mars to Earth for hands-on analysis.
Perseverance will spend the rest of its existence on Mars. but one of its tasks is to package samples into special, ultra-clean containers and leave them on the surface. Future spacecraft will retrieve the samples and bring them back to Earth. That won’t happen until sometime in the 2030s, however, at the earliest, and it’ll of course require NASA being granted sufficient budget by the Harris/Buttigieg administration.
Perseverance has already beamed back photographs from its new home. Initially they’re from the so-called hazard cameras used for navigation, but NASA expects higher resolution images to follow later today.