After a seven-month voyage, NASA’s Rover Perseverance is preparing to land on Mars on Thursday after first negotiating a risky landing process that will mark the beginning of its years-long search for signs of ancient microbial life.
The Mars 2020 mission, which left Florida late in late July, includes the largest vehicle ever sent to the Red Planet.
Built in NASA’s jet lab, it weighs a ton, has a two-meter-long robotic arm, has 19 cameras and two microphones to record a Martian sound landscape.
If it arrives intact, the Perseverance will be only the fifth rover to successfully complete the journey since the Pathfinder in 1997. They were all Americans, and the last one, Curiosity, is still active.
China placed its Tianwen-1 spacecraft in orbit around Mars last week, carrying both a lander and a rover, which it hopes will land in May.
On Thursday around 3:55 p.m. EST (2:25 a.m. EST), Perseverance will place its six wheels on a landing site that Ken Farley, a NASA scientist, described as “spectacular.”
Crater Lake, a 28-kilometer-wide (45-kilometer) basin located in the northern hemisphere of Mars, was considered for previous missions, but has so far been considered too difficult to land.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the mission control room will have fewer people than normal.
“But assuming we have a landing certificate, I don’t think COVID will be able to stop us from jumping up and down and pumping out our fists,” said Matt Wallace, deputy mission project manager.
The first low-resolution surface photos will arrive quickly. Videos, including entering the atmosphere, are expected later.
Lakes and rivers
Scientists believe that about 3.5 billion years ago there was a river in the crater that flowed into the lake, precipitating sediment in the fan delta.
During that period, “Mars was very similar to Earth in several important ways,” Farley said.
“It had a significant atmosphere, it had lakes and rivers on its surface, and it had an habitable environment, places where the organisms we know about on earth today could thrive.”
Mars is the only known place where such conditions have arisen outside our planet.
Mars 2020 is the first mission with the explicit goal of finding evidence that life once existed there.
Over the course of several years, Perseverance will collect and store up to 30 rock and soil samples that will eventually be returned to Earth where laboratories will analyze them.
Its top speed is 152 meters per hour (about 0.1 miles per hour) – by Earth standards slow, but faster than any of its predecessors, because it first crosses the delta, then the ancient shore of the lake and finally the edges of the crater.
Rover could return the samples as part of a planned joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency in the 2030s.
“Scientists who will analyze these samples are attending school today, they may not even be born yet,” Farley said.
What would these long-awaited signs of life look like? “We shouldn’t look for fossil teeth or fossil bones or fossil leaves,” he said.
Instead, it’s a hunt for organic molecules and other signs of the microbe’s past life, a discovery that would be “amazing.”
However, the first months of the mission will not be dedicated to this primary goal. Parallel experiments are also planned.
NASA especially wants to fly a plane on another planet for the first time. A helicopter, called ingenuity, must be able to ascend in an atmosphere of only one percent of the Earth’s density.
The second goal is to help pave the way for future human missions, by developing a system that can convert oxygen from Mars’ primary atmosphere of carbon dioxide, similar to a plant.
The space agency deploys an instrument called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utility Resource Experiment (MOXIE), using a process called electrolysis to produce about 10 grams of oxygen per hour.
NASA spends approximately $ 2.4 billion (approximately 17,430 kroner) on Mars 2020 million. Landing and operating the rover costs about $ 300 million (approximately 2,180 kroner).
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