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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: April 9, 2021 - 3:54pm

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

April 9, 2021 - 3:54pm

A three-man crew blasted off to the International Space Station Friday in a capsule honouring the 60th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person in space.

Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei lifted off from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at the expected time of 0742 GMT, footage broadcast by NASA TV showed, with docking expected at 1107 GMT. —  AFP

April 6, 2021 - 2:58pm

NASA's Ingenuity mini-helicopter has survived its first night alone on the frigid surface of Mars, the US space agency said, hailing it as "a major milestone" for the tiny craft as it prepares for its first flight.

The ultra-light aircraft was dropped on the surface on Saturday after detaching from the belly of the Perseverance rover, which touched down on the Red Planet on February 18.

Detached from the Perseverance, Ingenuity had to rely on its own solar-powered battery to run a vital heater to protect its unshielded electrical components from freezing and cracking during the bitter Martian night, where temperatures can plunge as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). —  AFP

April 5, 2021 - 7:08am

NASA's Ingenuity mini-helicopter has been dropped on the surface of Mars in preparation for its first flight, the US space agency said.

The ultra-light aircraft had been fixed to the belly of the Perseverance rover, which touched down on the Red Planet on February 18.

"MarsHelicopter touchdown confirmed!" NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory tweeted Saturday. —  AFP

March 4, 2021 - 8:06am

An unmanned SpaceX rocket exploded on the ground Wednesday after carrying out what had seemed to be a successful flight and landing.

It was the third straight flub involving the prototype of the Starship rocket, which SpaceX hopes one day to send to Mars. The last two test flights ended in crashes.

As seen on SpaceX video, this time the rocket appeared to have landed properly after its flight, although flames were coming out at the bottom and crews were trying to put them out. 

The rocket exploded a few minutes later. It was thrown into the air and crashed back to the ground.  —  AFP

February 19, 2021 - 7:53am

US President Joe Biden hails the "historic" landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars as proof of the power of science and "American ingenuity." 

"Congratulations to NASA and everyone whose hard work made Perseverance's historic landing possible. Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility," he tweets.

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