NASA’s Perseverance Rover Makes Perfect Touchdown On Mars
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NASA’s Perseverance Rover Makes Perfect Touchdown On Mars

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

While the agency has completed other missions to Mars, the $2.7 billion
robotic explorer , named Perseverance, carries scientific tools that will
bring advanced capabilities to the search for life beyond Earth. The rover,
about the size of a car, can use its sophisticated cameras, lasers that can
analyse the chemical makeup of Martian rocks and ground-penetrating radar to
identify the chemical signatures of fossilized microbial life that may have
thrived on Mars when it was a planet full of flowing water.

NASA’s earlier missions showed that in the distant past some places were warm,
wet and habitable. Now it is time to learn whether there were ever any
microscopic inhabitants there.

“It‘s an enormous undertaking that’s in front of us, and it has enormous
scientific potential to really be transformative,” Kenneth Williford, a deputy
project scientist on the mission, said during a news conference Wednesday.
“The question is, ‘Was Mars ever a living planet?’ ”

Mars has been the focus of more and more interest from explorers on Earth. The
United Arab Emirates and China both began orbiting the planet last month,
joining an armada of European and American spacecraft already studying it from
space. And private entrepreneurs are looking toward the neighbouring world,
with some such as Elon Musk imagining that one day perhaps humans could live
there.

The rover will set in motion a NASA plan that is to be carried out over the
next decade — one that could bring samples from Mars back to Earth, where
scientists will have even more capabilities to find something signalling that
our planet is not the only place where life has ever been found.

The mission will also try to make a small experimental helicopter, Ingenuity,
take flight in the thin Martian atmosphere — something never accomplished
before. Successful tests of this Marscopter could point the way toward new
methods for searching the surface of Mars and other worlds from their skies.

A successful test of the helicopter would be “a true extra-terrestrial Wright
Brothers moment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for
science.

NASA has landed a series of rovers on Mars since the 1990s. Each has
revolutionized human understanding of Mars.

The Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed in 2003, followed unmistakable
signs of water that flowed several billion years ago. The Curiosity rover,
which arrived in 2012, quickly discovered that its location, the 96-mile-wide
Gale Crater, was once a freshwater lake — an environment that was clearly
habitable, although it was not equipped to answer whether microbes once
inhabited the lake.

Perseverance, by contrast, has the tools that can search for complex
carbon-based molecules that could be the remnants of past microbes.

“We’re looking for lifelike shapes, and lifelike compositions,” Williford
said. “Chemical compositions — so the elements, the minerals, the molecules,
the organic molecules that we know are associated with life — we’re looking
for all those things occurring together.”

The setting for the mission’s studies is Jezero, a 30-mile-wide crater that
was once a large lake filled by a river delta. The rover will crawl along the
ancient delta, poring over its piles of sediments in search of those chemical
signals of microbes that were extinguished as Mars turned cold and barren.

But Perseverance will most likely be unable to provide definitive proof of
past life. Another part of its mission is to be the first step in a
complicated robotic relay that will eventually bring back some of the rocks
back to Earth for scientists to study up close.

Perseverance will drill rock samples, seal them in tubes and then drop them
onto the surface. A later rover, from the European Space Agency, will retrace
Perseverance’s path in order to pick up the tubes and transfer them to a small
rocket that will blast off to space. The samples will then be transferred to
another spacecraft in orbit around Mars for the trip back to Earth sometime in
the early 2030s.

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 3:48pm. Eastern time, controllers at the mission operations centre at
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California, received word from
Perseverance that it had entered the top of the Martian atmosphere at a speed
of more than 12,000 mph. The spacecraft was beginning the landing manoeuvres
that would bring it to a soft stop in just 7 anxiety-drenched minutes.

All that anyone on Earth could do was watch and hope that Perseverance
performed as designed.

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 4 minutes. The only
uncertainty was whether it had safely arrived in one piece, or had crashed
into many pieces, another human-made crater on the planet’s surface.

NASA’s operations centre — more sparsely filled than previous Mars landings
because of precautions required by the coronavirus pandemic — was mostly
pensively quiet. There were periodic announcements — and applause — as the
spacecraft descended 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 3:55pm, cheers erupted in the control room when Perseverance arrived on the
surface. “Touchdown confirmed,” said Swati Mohan, the engineer who provided
commentary on the descent. With their task accomplished, the team members
clapped and exchanged high-fives and fist bumps.

NASA will first turn its focus to testing the performance of its experimental
helicopter. Over the coming weeks, Perseverance will deploy the 4-pound flying
machine named Ingenuity. If it works, it will be the first such flight in the
atmosphere of another world in the solar system.

Flying on Mars is not a trivial endeavour. 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 Earth’s — helps
with getting airborne. But taking off from the surface of Mars is like flying
through air as thin as that found at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth.

Ingenuity is the flying equivalent of Sojourner, NASA’s first Martian rover,
which landed on the red planet in 1997. Although it was the size of a
microwave oven and just a demonstration of the basic technology, scientists
could already see the benefits of driving to explore a variety of rocks and
surface features, instead of sitting in one place like the earlier Viking
landers.

With NASA’s rover on the surface, space watchers will soon turn their eyes
back toward China’s Tianwen-1 mission. As it orbits Mars, the spacecraft is
preparing for a rover landing of its own. In May or June, the mission’s lander
and unnamed rover will try to set down in a basin called Utopia Planitia. If
it succeeds, that explorer will study the ice composition of the region,
potentially helping future astronauts understand what resources are available
to them should they set off for the red planet.

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