In an incredible feat of engineering, NASA has once again landed a rover on the surface of Mars. After the picture-complete landing sequence the Perseverance Rover came down safely today, Thursday, February 18.
The Rover has spent the last seven months traveling to Mars since its launch in July last year. After traveling through space, it began its descent by adding its cruise phase. It only leaves the atmosphere that protects the rover as it passes through the atmosphere.
The really difficult part of Mars landing is the communication delay. Because Mars is so far away, it takes 20 minutes for it to reach Earth for communication, depending on its current distance. At the time of landing, Mars was 127 million miles away and the delay was about 11 minutes.
This meant that the engineers had to pre-program the spacecraft to land, as they could not make any adjustments during the landing phase. That is why the period between entering the atmosphere and landing safely is known as “seven minutes of terror”.
The spacecraft entered the atmosphere, slowing it down to 12,500 mph, then deploying a parachute to slow it down to 900 mph. In the final 20 seconds before landing, a jet pack with eight engines pointed downward to slow it down further, before the rover was lowered onto the cable to gently touch the surface.
The rover (and engineers) successfully made it through this difficult sequence, and perseverance touched down at 3:55 pm ET. The landing was helped by a new system called Terrain Relative Navigation, in which spacecraft cameras captured images of the surface, as it identified potential hazards such as larger rocks or sand dunes than onboard maps. This allows the craft to select the safest area for landing.
The team was also able to obtain the first images from the rover’s engineering cameras, showing the rover’s shadow in the Martian regolith.
Perseverance can now begin its mission of searching for evidence of ancient life on Mars. Although Mars is dry and lifeless today, at one point in its history there was a large amount of liquid water on its surface. This means that subtle life may have evolved there. So perseverance is descending into an area called the Jezero Crater, which was once filled with water and could provide a hospitable environment for life, to investigate.
The rover also has a sidekick in the form of an Ingenuity helicopter, a small light-than-air craft that will be the first to fly on another planet. He would later take a test flight in the mission.
Now, NASA engineers will begin testing the health of the rover and make sure everything is working as expected. Updates on the status of the rover should be available by tomorrow, Friday, February 19.