March 5, 2021

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Live Updates: The Latest on NASA’s Perseverance Rover on Mars – The New York Times

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The Perseverance rover team celebrated the spacecraft’s successful landing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday.
Credit…Bill Ingalls/NASA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

NASA landed a new robotic rover on Mars on Thursday, its most ambitious effort in decades to directly study whether there was ever life on the red planet.

While the agency has landed other missions on Mars, the $2.7 billion robotic explorer named Perseverance carries a sophisticated set of scientific tools that will bring advanced capabilities to the search for life beyond our planet.

Perseverance was the third robotic visitor from Earth to arrive at the red planet this month. Last week, two other spacecraft, Hope from the United Arab Emirates and Tianwen-1 from China, entered orbit around Mars.

But NASA’s spacecraft did not go into orbit first. Instead it zipped along a direct path to the surface.

At 3:48 p.m. Eastern time, controllers at the mission operations center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, Calif., received word from Perseverance that it had entered the top of the Martian atmosphere at a speed of more than 12,000 miles per hour. The spacecraft was beginning the landing maneuvers that would bring it to a soft stop in just seven anxiety-drenched minutes.

Credit…NASA TV
Credit…NASA TV

All that anyone on Earth could do was watch and hope that Perseverance performed as designed. At Mars, the fate of the rover was already determined.

Mars is currently 126 million miles from Earth. Radio signals, traveling at the speed of light, take more than 11 minutes to travel from there to here. That means that when the message announcing the start of the landing sequence reached Earth, the rover had already been on Mars for four minutes. The only uncertainty was whether it was safe there in one piece, or crashed into many pieces, another human-made crater on the surface of Mars The atmosphere of NASA’s operations center — more sparsely filled than previous Mars landings because of precautions required by the coronavirus pandemic — was pensively quiet, broken by applause as specific events unfolded without problem.

There were periodic announcements of the spacecraft’s progress through the atmosphere, : the deceleration and heating as it sliced through the thin Martian air, the deployment of a huge parachute even as it was still supersonic in speed, the shedding of the rover’s heat shield so that its cameras could navigate to its destination, the firing of rocket engines to further slow its descent.

In the final step, the rover was lowered at the end of a cable beneath a rocket-powered jetpack until it touched the surface.

At 3:55 p.m. cheers erupted in the control room with the announcement that Perseverance was intact on the surface. “Touchdown confirmed,” said Swati Mohan, the engineer who provided commentary on the descent.

An artist’s concept of the Perseverance rover descending through the Martian atmosphere to the surface. Hundreds of critical events had to execute perfectly and exactly on time for the rover to land safely.
Credit…NASA/JPL-Caltech

In a nutshell, Perseverance had to decelerate from more than 12,000 miles per hour to a full stop during what NASA calls “seven minutes of terror,” for the period of time from the rover’s entry into the atmosphere until its landing. There was no chance for a do-over. The path of Perseverance intersected with the surface of Mars. The only question was whether the rover ended up in one piece, ready to begin its mission, or smashed into many pieces.

The thin atmosphere of Mars adds several levels of difficulty. A spacecraft needs a heat shield, because the compression of air molecules heats its bottom side to thousands of degrees. But there is not enough friction to slow it down for a gentle landing with just parachutes.

An artist’s concept of the Perseverance rover, bottom, being dropped on the Martian surface by the descent stage.
Credit…NASA, via Associated Press

The spacecraft had to handle the landing operation all by itself. It takes 11 minutes for a radio signal to travel from Mars to Earth. That means if anything went wrong, it would already be too late by the time people in NASA’s mission operations center got word.

“It all has to happen autonomously,” said Matt Wallace, a deputy project manager. “Perseverance really has to fight her way down to the surface on her own. It’s something like a controlled disassembly of the spacecraft.”

First, a capsule-shaped container holding the rover separated from the part of the spacecraft called the cruise stage. That section held systems that were needed for the 300 million-mile journey from Earth to Mars but would be of no use for getting through the Martian atmosphere.

About 80 seconds after entering the atmosphere, the spacecraft experienced peak temperatures, with the heat shield on the bottom of the capsule reaching 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the capsule, it’s a lot less toasty — about room temperature. As the air became denser, the spacecraft continued to slow.

Small thrusters on the top of the capsule fired to tweak the angle and direction of its descent and keep it on course toward its landing site.

At an altitude of about seven miles, four minutes after entry into the atmosphere, the capsule was traveling at a speed under 1,000 miles per hour. It then deployed a huge parachute, more than 70 feet in diameter.

The spacecraft next dropped its heat shield, allowing cameras and other instruments to take note of the terrain below to determine its position.

Even with the huge parachute, the spacecraft was still falling at about 200 miles per hour.

The next crucial step was called the sky crane maneuver. The top of the capsule, called the backshell, was let go and is carried away by the parachute. There were two pieces of the spacecraft left. The top was the descent stage — in essence a rocket-powered jetpack carrying the rover beneath it. The engines of the descent stage fired, first steering to avoid a collision with the backshell and the parachute. Then the engines slowed the descent to less than two miles per hour.

About 66 feet above the surface, the rover was then lowered on cables. The descent stage continued downward until the wheels of the rover hit the ground. Then the cables were cut, and the descent stage flew away to crash at a safe distance from the rover.

Members of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover team in mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California on Thursday.
Credit…Bill Ingalls/NASA, via Associated Press

NASA has done this before. The Curiosity rover, which is currently on Mars, successfully used the same landing system in 2012.

Perseverance used stronger parachutes and a more precise navigation system. NASA engineers say they have tried to take every step to improve the chances that everything will work, although they’ll never know if they have figured out every contingency until the landing succeeds.

“We’ve never really come up with a good way of calculating the probability of success,” said Mr. Wallace, the deputy project manager.

Over the decades, NASA has succeeded in eight of nine landing attempts on Mars. The only failure was the Mars Polar Lander in 1999. (Two basketball-size probes carried by that mission that were released during descent and designed to survive impact also did not work.)

Over the past 20 years, NASA has gradually asked more complex questions about Mars. First, the mantra was “Follow the water,” as that is where there once may have been life. With giant canyons, winding river channels and signs of dried-up lakes, it has been clear that in the past, water has flowed on Mars even though the planet is cold and dry today.




Crater

rim

Jezero

Crater

JEZERO CRATER

River

delta

Possible

path of

rover

Possible

landing site

TARGET

LANDING AREA

Canyon

carved by

a river

JEZERO CRATER

River

delta

Crater

rim

Possible

path of

rover

Possible

landing site

Jezero

Crater

TARGET

LANDING AREA

Canyon

carved by

a river

JEZERO CRATER

River

delta

Crater

rim

Possible

path of

rover

Possible

landing site

Jezero

Crater

TARGET

LANDING AREA


Perseverance’s destination is Jezero Crater. The rover will explore the delta of a river that once flowed into a lake that filled the crater. The piles of sediments are a promising place where the fossil chemical signatures of ancient Martian microbes might still be preserved today.




Ingenuity Helicopter

The four-pound aircraft will communicate wirelessly with the Perseverance rover.

Solar Panel

Blades

Four carbon-fiber blades will spin at about 2,400 r.p.m.

Power

The plutonium-based power supply will charge the rover’s batteries.

MAST

Instruments will take videos, panoramas and photographs. A laser will study the chemistry of Martian rocks.

PiXl

Will identify chemical elements to seek signs of past life on Mars.

Antenna

Will transmit data directly to Earth.

Robotic arm

A turret with many instruments is attached to a 7-foot robotic arm. A drill will extract samples from Martian rocks. The Sherloc device will identify molecules and minerals to detect potential biosignatures, with help from the Watson camera.

Perseverance Rover

The 2,200 pound rover will explore Jezero Crater. It has aluminum wheels and a suspension system to drive over obstacles.

Ingenuity Helicopter

The aircraft will communicate wirelessly with the rover.

Solar Panel

Power

The plutonium-based power supply will charge the rover’s batteries.

MAST

Instruments will take videos, panoramas and photographs. A laser will study the chemistry of Martian rocks.

PiXl

Will identify chemical elements to seek signs of past life on Mars.

Robotic arm

A turret with many instruments is attached to a 7-foot robotic arm. A drill will extract samples from Martian rocks. The Sherloc device will identify molecules and minerals to detect potential biosignatures, with help from the Watson camera.

Perseverance Rover

The 2,200 pound rover will explore Jezero Crater. It has aluminum wheels and a suspension system to drive over obstacles.

Solar panel

Ingenuity Helicopter

Suspension

Perseverance rover

Robotic arm

A turret with many instruments is attached to a 7-foot robotic arm. A drill will extract samples from Martian rocks. The Sherloc device will identify molecules and minerals to detect potential biosignatures, with help from the Watson camera. PiXl will identify chemical elements to seek signs of past life on Mars.


The rover is largely the same design as the Curiosity rover, which is now studying the Gale Crater. But it is carrying a different set of instruments, including sophisticated cameras, lasers that can analyze the chemical makeup of rocks and ground-penetrating radar. Tests of these tools on Earth demonstrated the possibilities of finding preserved signs of past life.

The mission will also collect a series of rock and dirt samples to be picked up by a future mission to Mars and eventually brought back to Earth.

Video

Cinemagraph
An animation depicting the test flight of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars. Video by NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s new rover is carrying a four-pound helicopter called Ingenuity that will attempt something that has never been done before: the first controlled flight on another world in our solar system.

Flying on Mars is not a trivial endeavor. There is not much air there to push against to generate lift. At the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is just 1/100th as dense as Earth’s. The lesser gravity — one-third of what you feel here — helps with getting airborne. But taking off from the surface of Mars is the equivalent of flying through air as thin as what would be found at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth. No terrestrial helicopter has ever flown that high, and that’s more than twice the altitude that jetliners typically fly at.

NASA’s engineers used a series of materials and computer technology advancements to overcome a number of these challenges. About two months after landing, Perseverance will drop off the helicopter from its belly, and Ingenuity will attempt a series of about five test flights of increasing duration.

If the tests succeed, it could pave the way for future, larger Marscopters. Having the option of using robotic fliers could greatly expand a space agency’s ability to study the Martian landscape in more detail, just as the transition from stationary landers to rovers did in earlier decades.

A concept model of NASA’s orbiting sample container, which will hold the tubes of Martian rock and soil samples to be returned to Earth.
Credit…NASA/JPL-Caltech

Send a robotic spacecraft to Mars, grab some rocks and dirt and bring those back to Earth.

How hard could that be?

It’s more like an interplanetary circus act than you might imagine, but NASA and the European Space Agency think that now is the time they can finally pull off this complex choreography, tossing the rocks from one spacecraft to another before the samples finally land on Earth in 2031.

One of the key tasks of Perseverance is to drill up to 39 rock cores. Each sample of rock and dirt, weighing about half an ounce, will be sealed in an ultraclean cigar-size metal tube, and Perseverance is to drop each tube back on the surface.

Under current plans, the samples will wait in the cold as the rover continues its studies of Jezero crater.

Two spacecraft are to blast off to Mars in 2026 as part of a mission to bring the rocks back.

Credit…NASA/JPL-Caltech

One will be a NASA-built lander that will be the heaviest vehicle ever put on the surface of Mars. It will be carrying a rover, built by the Europeans, to pick up the rock samples, and a small rocket that will launch the rocks to orbit around Mars. It will arrive in August 2028, and the rover will make a dash to collect at least some of the rock samples and bring them back and transfer them to the lander for launch off Mars.

Waiting above Mars for the sample container, about the size of a soccer ball, will be the Earth Return Orbiter, built by the European Space Agency. Assuming it captures the container successfully, the orbiter would then depart Mars. As it approached Earth, it would eject the samples, which will land in the Utah desert.

The mission is expected to cost several billion dollars, but this is a long-sought goal of Mars scientists, to closely study rocks and see if they discern whether life once existed on Mars.

“To really get into some of the really intriguing questions at a detail level means we need to parse the evidence down on the molecular level and try to tease the information out of very, very old material,” James Watzin, the director of the Mars exploration program at NASA, said in an interview in 2020. “And that requires a whole suite of instrumentation that was clearly too large to shrink and send to another planet.”

An image taken by the United Arab Emirates‘s Hope probe on Feb. 10 on its approach to Mars.
Credit…Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center/UAE Space Agency, via Associated Press

NASA’s rover is the third spacecraft to arrive at the red planet this month. Two more robotic probes, built by the United Arab Emirates and China, went into orbit last month. All three spacecraft launched in July 2020, aiming to take advantage of the period every two years when the journey between Earth and Mars is shorter than usual.

The first new visitor to Mars was Hope, a robotic probe from the United Arab Emirates sent on a path toward Mars last summer by a Japanese rocket. The spacecraft was built at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, with Emirati engineers and scientists working closely alongside American counterparts.

Until last year, the United Arab Emirates’ small space program had only built Earth observation satellites and had sent one astronaut for a brief stay aboard the International Space Station. Its Mars orbiter expanded the program’s ambition, with a long-term goal of inspiring more Emiratis to pursue careers in science and technology.

But the Hope spacecraft will also aid planetary scientists on Earth. During its mission of at least two years, it will collect data on how dust storms and other weather conditions near the surface affect the speed at which Martian air leaks into outer space. This could help further understanding of how Mars, a world that had running water on its surface in the early days of the solar system, turned into the cold and seemingly lifeless world that it is today.

The spacecraft pulled into orbit on Feb. 9. On Sunday, the Emirates released a direct image of Mars captured by Hope, made at a distance of about 15,000 miles on Feb. 10. Half of the rust-colored world emerges from shadow, revealing some of the giant Martian volcanoes, including Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, as well as an icy region at its northern pole.

Video

Cinemagraph
Cameras on China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft captured Mars as it began orbiting the red planet. Video by CNSA

Whether or not Perseverance sticks its landing on Thursday, it won’t be the only spacecraft to attempt to touch down on Mars in one piece this year.

China was the second country to arrive at Mars this month, pulling into orbit on Feb. 10 with its Tianwen-1 spacecraft. China’s lunar exploration program has accomplished a great deal in the past decade, and Tianwen’s travel is the country’s first successful journey to another planet in our solar system.

Video released by China’s space agency last week showed the red planet as Tianwen-1 began its orbit. In washed-out colors, cameras on the spacecraft captured Martian haze and some of the planet’s surface features as the probe raced past.

China has now adjusted Tianwen-1’s orbit to pass over the planet’s poles, similar to the orbits used by some NASA and European spacecraft for scientific observations of the surface. It will begin preparations for releasing a lander and robotic rover that will head to the surface. China has stated that this landing attempt will occur in May or June. Its destination is Utopia Planitia, a large impact basin on the red planet’s surface. Once it lands successfully — if it does — China’s space agency plans to announce the rover’s name.

It’s getting a bit crowded around the red planet.

In addition to the new arrivals, six more orbiters are currently studying the planet from space. Three were sent there by NASA: Mars Odyssey, launched in 2001, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2005, and MAVEN, which left Earth in 2013.

Europe has two spacecraft in orbit. Its Mars Express orbiter was launched in 2003, and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter lifted off in 2016 and is shared with Russia’s space program.

India operates the sixth spacecraft, the Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan, which launched in 2013.

Two American missions are currently operating on the ground. Curiosity has been roving since 2012. It is joined by InSight, which has been studying marsquakes and other inner properties of the red planet since 2018. Another American mission, the Opportunity rover, expired in 2019 when a dust storm caused it to lose power.

Work on the James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield at a Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Credit…Chris Gunn/NASA

While Mars is a highlight of NASA’s calendar this year, it has many other interesting missions planned in the months to come. While some may slip into 2022 for a variety of reasons, others are likely to get off their launchpads this year.

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, effectively a successor to the Hubble telescope, is potentially the most important science mission for NASA this year. It has been postponed for years, plagued by technical problems and mounting costs. NASA and the world’s astronomers and planetary scientists are eager to see it get off the ground at the end of October.

NASA also has a number of missions to the moon that could occur this year.

Its first step toward returning astronauts to the lunar surface later in the decade will be an uncrewed test flight of the massive Space Launch System built for future American deep space launches. The rocket has faced numerous delays and ballooning costs, but NASA still plans a journey known as Artemis-1 that will send Orion, a capsule for astronauts, around the moon and back to Earth. That mission’s launch will depend on a successful test fire of the rocket’s engines scheduled for next Thursday.

NASA is also initiating a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, and has contracted with a number of private companies to build robotic lunar landers that will carry cargo from NASA and other customers to the moon’s surface.

In the fourth quarter of 2021, Nova-C, a spacecraft built by Intuitive Machines of Houston, could lift off aboard a SpaceX rocket and head to the moon. Another company, Astrobotic of Pittsburgh, is aiming to launch its Peregrine lander to the moon’s surface later this year.

The agency is also scheduled to launch two other missions into deep space in 2021.

One, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, is designed to test whether a spacecraft could deflect an asteroid that might be headed toward Earth’s surface. To do that, it will visit Didymos, a pair of near-Earth asteroids that travel around the sun together, and attempt a collision to nudge the orbit of the smaller rock. It is scheduled for a July launch.

A second mission, Lucy, will launch in October and travel much farther, making flybys through Jupiter’s orbital path. There it will study the Trojans — asteroids that travel in the same orbit as Jupiter but hundreds of millions of miles ahead or behind, trapped there by the giant planet’s gravity. Scientists think these space rocks could conceal secrets of how the solar system’s outer planets were formed.

A close-up view of Phobos, the larger of Mars’s two moons. It is 17 miles across, and will be visited by a Japanese mission, MMX.
Credit…NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

While more worlds in the solar system may beckon for exploration, scientists are far from done with Mars, even with the three new explorers pulling up to the red planet this year. Beyond the sample return mission that NASA and Europe plan, at least three more missions are being developed, and humanity could see other surprises in the coming decade.

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos, the space agency of the Russian Federation, could be the next visitors to attempt a landing on Mars with a rover named Rosalind Franklin, after the British chemist who played a central role in illuminating the double helix structure of DNA. The two countries had planned to launch the rover in 2020. But a series of technical problems were aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, which led to postponement of the mission. A 2022 liftoff and 2023 arrival on Mars is now expected.

Japan is also expected to attempt a mission to Mars later this decade. Unlike other spacecraft, this one will focus on the red planet’s small moons, Phobos and Deimos. The Martian Moons Exploration Mission could arrive as soon as 2025, and prepare to briefly land on the surface of Phobos to collect rock samples.

By bringing the samples back to Earth as early as 2029, the Japanese mission could offer insights into how the moons formed and provide clues to what Mars was like in the earliest stages of its evolution as a planet. The voyage would also draw from lessons learned from Hayabusa2, a successful mission Japan just completed in December to collect samples from an asteroid, Ryugu, and bring them back to Earth.

A third Mars mission is in planning but not fully on the books yet. NASA agreed this month to cooperate with the Italian, Japanese and Canadian space agencies on the Mars Ice Mapper. It would orbit Mars and attempt to produce a more detailed assessment of places on the planet with the most abundant sources of ice near the surface. That could help identify future landing sites for human missions. The spacecraft would launch in 2026 at the earliest.

Finally, it is possible that private companies could set their eyes on a visit to Mars in the coming decade. SpaceX, the private rocket company that is now the biggest player in launching satellites into Earth’s orbit, has long been animated by founder Elon Musk’s vision of colonizing Mars. The goal of sending people to live on the red planet seems distant. But as Mr. Musk’s company continues to iterate on Starship, its next generation rocket prototype, a SpaceX launch to Mars of some kind in the coming years seems plausible.

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