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Touchdown: NASA's Perseverance rover ready to search for life on Mars
An image showing the simulation of the landing of NASA's Perseverance rover on the planet Mars, where it will look for signs of past microbial life, cache rock and soil samples, and prepare for future human exploration, is livestreamed on the Piccadilly Lights screen in central London, on February 18, 2021.
AFP/Tolga Akmen

Touchdown: NASA's Perseverance rover ready to search for life on Mars

Issam Ahmed, Lucie Aubourg (Agence France-Presse) - February 19, 2021 - 7:05am

WASHINGTON, United States — After seven months in space, NASA's Perseverance rover survived a nail-biting landing phase to touch down gently on the surface of Mars on Thursday, ready to embark on its mission to search for the signs of ancient microbial life.

"Touchdown confirmed," said operations lead Swati Mohan at around 3:55 pm Eastern Time (2055 GMT), as mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena erupted in cheers.

The autonomously guided procedure was completed more than 11 minutes earlier, which is how long it takes for radio signals to return to Earth.

"WOW!!" tweeted NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen as he posted Perseverance's first black and white image from the Jezero Crater in Mars' northern hemisphere.

Over the course of several years, Perseverance will attempt to collect 30 rock and soil samples in sealed tubes, to be eventually sent back to Earth sometime in the 2030s for lab analysis.

About the size of an SUV, it weighs a ton, is equipped with a seven foot (two meter) long robotic arm, has 19 cameras, two microphones, and a suite of cutting-edge instruments to assist in its scientific goals.

Before it could embark on its lofty quest, it first had to overcome the dreaded "seven minutes of terror" — the risky landing procedure that has scuppered nearly 50 percent of all missions to the planet.

Shortly after 3:30 pm Eastern Time (2030 GMT), the Mars 2020 spacecraft careened into the Martian atmosphere at 12,500 miles (20,000 kilometers) per hour, protected by its heat shield.

It then deployed a supersonic parachute the size of a Little League field, before firing up an eight-engined jetpack to slow its descent even further, and then eventually lower the rover carefully to the ground on a set of cables.

Its target site was "absolutely treacherous for landing," Allen Chen, lead engineer for the landing stage said Thursday.

But the vessel had new landing technologies up its sleeve to help it navigate during descent, including the "Terrain Relative Navigation" that uses a special camera to identify surface features and compare them to an onboard map

Astrobiology dream

Scientists believe that around 3.5 billion years ago the crater was home to a river that flowed into a lake, depositing sediment in a fan-shaped delta.

"The question of whether there's life beyond Earth is one of the most fundamental and essential questions we can ask," said NASA geologist Katie Stack Morgan.

"Our ability to ask this question and develop the scientific investigations and technology to answer it is one of the things that make us as a species so unique."

It will begin drilling its first samples in summer, and its engineers have planned for it to traverse first the delta, then the ancient lake shore, and finally the edges of the crater. 

Perseverance's top speed of 0.1 miles per hour is sluggish by Earth standards but faster than any of its predecessors, and along the way it will deploy new instruments to scan for organic matter, map chemical composition, and zap rocks with a laser to study the vapor.

"We astrobiologists have been dreaming about this mission for decades," said Mary Voytek, head of NASA's astrobiology program.

Despite the rover's state-of-the-art technology, bringing samples back to Earth remains crucial because of anticipated ambiguities in the specimens it documents. 

For example, fossils that arose from ancient microbes may look suspiciously similar to patterns caused by precipitation.

Flying on another world

Before getting to the main mission, NASA wants to run several eye-catching experiments.

Tucked under Perseverance's belly is a small helicopter drone that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet. 

The helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, will have to achieve lift in an atmosphere that's one percent the density of Earth's, in a demonstration of concept that could revolutionize the way we explore other planets

Another experiment involves an instrument that can convert oxygen from Mars' primarily carbon dioxide atmosphere, much like a plant, using the process of electrolysis to produce 10 grams of oxygen an hour. 

The idea is that humans eventually won't need to carry their own oxygen, which is crucial for rocket fuel as well as for breathing. 

Perseverance's two microphones will meanwhile attempt to record the Martian soundscape for the very first time, after past efforts failed.

The rover is only the fifth ever to set its wheels down on Mars. The feat was first accomplished in 1997 and all of them have been American. 

That will probably soon change: China's Tianwen-1 spacecraft entered Martian orbit last week and is expected to touch down with a stationary lander and a rover in May.

MARS NASA PERSEVERANCE
As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: June 15, 2021 - 10:35am

Monitor major developments on space explorations and the status of missions.

June 15, 2021 - 10:35am

The first crew for China's new space station prepared to blast off this week for the latest step in Beijing's ambitious programme to establish itself as a space power.

The mission is China's first crewed spaceflight in nearly five years, and a matter of prestige for the government as it prepares to mark the 100th birthday of the ruling Communist Party on July 1 with a propaganda blitz.

A Long March-2F rocket carrying three astronauts in the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft is slated to lift off from a base in northwest China's Gobi desert on Thursday, according to experts with knowledge of the matter.

They plan to spend three months on the Tiangong station, China's longest crewed space mission to date, with spacewalks among their tasks.

The astronauts will aim to "get their new home in space kitted out and ready to use," said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. — AFP

June 13, 2021 - 9:12am

An unnamed bidder pays $28 million at auction Saturday for a seat on board the first crewed spaceflight of Jeff Bezos' company Blue Origin on July 20, as one of four passengers including the Amazon founder himself.

The winner, whose identity will be disclosed in coming weeks, beat out some 20 participants in an auction launched in late May, and wrapped up with a 10-minute online bidding frenzy, livecast by Blue Origin. —  AFP

May 11, 2021 - 8:52am

The US space probe Osiris-Rex on Monday left the orbit of the asteroid Bennu, from which it collected dust samples last year, to begin its long journey back to Earth.

The probe still has a vast distance to cover before it lands in the Utah desert on September 24, 2023. 

Osiris-Rex is "now moving away over 600 miles an hour from Bennu, on its way home," Dante Lauretta, head of the mission, said on NASA's video broadcast of the event. 

The spacecraft's thrusters were engaged without incident for seven minutes to put the probe on the correct trajectory home, a journey of 1.4 billion miles (2.3 billion kiometers).

It is carrying more than 60 grams of dust and fragments from the asteroid, the largest sample collected by NASA since the Moon rocks brought back by the Apollo missions. — AFP

May 10, 2021 - 8:32am

SpaceX will launch a satellite to the Moon next year funded entirely with the cryptocurrency Dogecoin, Canadian company Geometric Energy Corporation, which will lead the lunar mission, announced Sunday.

The satellite, dubbed DOGE-1, will be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in the first quarter of 2022, the Calgary-based company said in a statement.

The cubic satellite, weighing 88 pounds (40 kilograms), will aim to obtain "lunar-spatial intelligence from sensors and cameras on-board," according to the statement.

The "DOGE-1 Mission to the Moon" will be "the first-ever commercial lunar payload in history paid entirely with" Dogecoin, Geometric Energy Corporation said, without specifying how much the project cost.

"We're excited to launch DOGE-1 to the Moon!" Tom Ochinero, SpaceX vice president of commercial sales, said in the statement. — AFP

May 9, 2021 - 2:23pm

A large segment of a Chinese rocket re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean on Sunday, the Chinese space agency said, following fevered speculation over where the 18-tonne object would come down.

Officials in Beijing had said there was little risk from the freefalling segment of the Long March-5B rocket, which had launched the first module of China's new space station into Earth orbit on April 29.

"After monitoring and analysis, at 10:24 (0224 GMT) on May 9, 2021, the last-stage wreckage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle has reentered the atmosphere," the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement, providing coordinates for a point in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. —  AFP

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