Update: NASA’s Perseverance makes safe touchdown on Mars
203 days ago, on July 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral Space Force Station Florida, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) largest and most advanced rover yet – the Perseverance rover set off on its 472million kilometre journey to the red planet.
Last night that journey ended in high fives at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the control and command centre where NASA engineers were steering the rover’s safe landing from, with confirmation of touchdown being announced at approximately 20:55GMT.
According to NASA, the rover’s mission will mark an audacious inaugural attempt at collecting samples and looking for signs of life around the Jezero Crater where the rover landed, which is said to have held water about 3.5 billion years ago. Settled on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator, the crater is 45 kilometres wide.
But more importantly, there was an aerial vehicle on board, and we are very interested to in knowing its fate in the unfamiliar climes of a strange planet.
“About the size of a car, 1,026-kilogram robotic geologist and astrobiologist will undergo several weeks of testing before it begins its two-year science investigation of Mars’ Jezero Crater,” NASA said in announcing the Perseverance’s touchdown. “While the rover will investigate the rock and sediment of Jezero’s ancient lakebed and river delta to characterise the region’s geology and past climate, a fundamental part of its mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. To that end, the Mars Sample Return campaign, being planned by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), will allow scientists on Earth to study samples collected by Perseverance to search for definitive signs of past life using instruments too large and complex to send to the Red Planet.”
In the words of Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA; “Because of today’s exciting events, the first pristine samples from carefully documented locations on another planet are another step closer to being returned to Earth. Perseverance is the first step in bringing back rock and regolith from Mars. We don’t know what these pristine samples from Mars will tell us. But what they could tell us is monumental – including that life might have once existed beyond Earth.”
We have to admit that, the significance of this mission notwithstanding, we were drawn to Mr Zurbuchen’s comments by that word – regolith – which we last came across in Geography class a few years ago, and made us feel really smart.
But we digress.
While all this is interesting and fun to follow, here were are more excited about the 1.8kilogram passenger that Perseverance has just successfully navigated through the last Seven Minutes of Terror (according to NASA anyway – it is the rollercoaster last part of the ride where the flight has to go from nearly 20,000kilomtres per hour to zero in a seven minute spell that involves a catalogue of complicated manoeuvres that include a parachute and some quick scouting to find a safe place to land).
That does feel like seven minutes of terror, come to think of it.
Anyway, the special cargo that tagged along in Perseverance’s belly is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which is set to become the first aircraft ever to fly outside planet Earth. And it will do so autonomously too; which is why we will claim it as an unmanned aerial vehicle.
The drone is made of very light material because the atmospheric density on Mars is 99 percent lighter than that on earth, so the drone has to have the right weight for lift off.
Now that it seems the drone has survived the worst parts of the journey; all it needs to do now is survive the bitterly cold temperatures, charge its batteries and other components using an attached solar panel, before embarking on the flight that will mark a before and after in the history of aviation.
“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States, and space exploration globally – when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, so to speak, to rewrite the textbooks,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission embodies our nation’s spirit of persevering even in the most challenging of situations, inspiring, and advancing science and exploration. The mission itself personifies the human ideal of persevering toward the future and will help us prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.”
We are rooting for the drone to make a success of its pilot mission, and pave the way for future out of planet flights where it will be able to help other rovers with exploration, through performing tasks like aerial surveys, aerial photography and flying into and inspecting places too dangerous for the rovers to venture into.
We cannot wait for a time when a drone will be able to capture images and collect samples of regolith for scientists back on earth to scrutinise under their microscopes.