NASA’s newest robotic explorer, Perseverance, landed successfully on Mars, concluding a nearly 300-million-mile journey and initiating a new research era on the Red Planet.

The agency’s Perseverance rover touched down on the Red Planet at 3:55 p.m. EST Thursday, bringing an end to the “seven minutes of terror” that saw a fiery atmospheric entry and parachute-assisted descent. The rover’s landing mechanism then fired eight retrorockets to slow down and guide it to a proper landing spot before using nylon cords to lower it onto the surface.

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” exclaimed NASA engineer Swati Mohan.

All told, the unique landing maneuver successfully decelerated Perseverance from thousands of miles an hour to just 1.7 mph at touchdown. And because of an 11-minute delay in transmissions from Earth to Mars, the rover did it all on its own – no human input was possible.

The new landing procedures were critical in anticipation of manned-missions to Mars.

Perseverance “has hazard avoidance and precision landing capability that is going to be really important when we need to land multiple systems on the surface to prepare for human missions to Mars,” Jurczyk said.

A mission objective is to seek evidence of past life. NASA selected the Jezero crater as the landing site because it is an optimum location for such research.

Jezero is a great place to do such work, mission team members have said. The crater, which lies about 18 degrees north of the Martian equator, hosted a lake the size of Lake Tahoe long ago and also sports an ancient river delta. In addition, Mars orbiters have spied on Jezero’s floor clay minerals, which form in the presence of liquid water.

Perseverance will scrutinize Martian dirt and rock with a variety of high-tech science gear, including multiple spectrometers, high-resolution cameras and ground-penetrating radar. One of the rover’s seven instruments, called SuperCam, will zap rocks with a laser and gauge the composition of the resulting vapor.

Some intriguing new technologies are onboard Perseverance that that NASA will test. These include the Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) Experiment, or MOXIE, which will attempt to convert carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen.

Such a technology is critical for future human missions to Mars, enabling crews to produce oxygen needed for both life support and propellant. The use of ISRU technologies for propellant production in particular makes human missions much more feasible, noted Jeff Sheehy, chief engineer for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, at a Feb. 16 briefing.

MOXIE will be turned on three times in the first 30 days after landing, with the first two to test the payload. “On the third run, we’ll actually make oxygen under some conservative operating conditions,” Sheehy said. MOXIE will be run at least 10 times over the course the mission, testing its ability to produce oxygen at different times of day and seasons of the year.

Each run of MOXIE will be about an hour, producing 6 to 10 grams of oxygen. The technology would need to be scaled up by about a factor of 200 for use on future crewed missions, but the agency hopes to at least prove the technology works on this mission.

Perseverance will eventually deploy Ingenuity, the first extraterrestrial helicopter.

NASA refers to Ingenuity as a ‘technology demonstration,’ one that will be used to test operating a powered aircraft on another planet. The agency has warned that this is a very experimental test and that it can’t yet say whether Ingenuity will be able to successfully take off and fly on the Red Planet.

Assuming the helicopter does take off and fly as planned, NASA will conduct multiple flight tests over a 30-day period starting this spring. To kick things off, Ingenuity will only fly a few feet off the ground for around half a minute before landing. That will be a ‘major milestone,’ NASA explains, marking the first powered flight to happen on Mars.

Additional flight tests will increasingly push the limits, keeping the helicopter in the air for longer and taking it farther distances. After a Martian month of demonstrating Ingenuity’s technology, NASA will go back to its Perseverance rover mission. Only minimal commands from NASA will be sent to Ingenuity, with the aircraft doing most of its maneuvers on its own.


Congratulations to the NASA and JPL teams.


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