Perseverance rover lands safely on Mars

Friday, 19 February, 2021

Perseverance rover lands safely on Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover — the largest, most advanced rover the agency has ever sent to another world — touched down on Mars today at around 7.55 am AEDT, after a 203-day journey traversing 472 million km. The mission marks an ambitious first step in the effort to collect Mars samples and return them to Earth.

“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 mission itself personifies the human ideal of persevering toward the future and will help us prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.”

The mission

About the size of a car, the 1026 kg robotic geologist and astrobiologist will undergo several weeks of testing before it begins its two-year investigation of Mars’s Jezero Crater. Some 45 km wide, the Jezero Crater sits on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Scientists have determined that 3.5 billion years ago the crater had its own river delta and was filled with water.

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 will allow scientists on Earth to study samples collected by Perseverance to search for definitive signs of past life, equipped with seven primary science instruments, the most cameras ever sent to Mars and a complex sample caching system — the first of its kind sent into space.

Also on board the rover is a small piece of desert rock, chiselled from the Australian outback, which will assist in the hunt for signs of early microbial life in ancient Martian rocks. The rock sample was provided by geoscientist Associate Professor Patrice Rey, who excavated a small piece of the Pilbara in Western Australia five years ago, sent it overseas to colleagues and later forgot about it, only to be informed last year that it was headed to Mars. That bit of Australia is geologically similar to the area being explored by Perseverance.

“About 3 billion years ago, this crater [Jezero] hosted a lake in which waterborne sediments, eroded from Mars’s crust, were deposited before being blanketed by volcanic activity,” Assoc Prof Rey explained. “This environment is considered similar to geological conditions on Earth 4 to 3.5 billion years ago, when microbial life was taking hold on our planet.”

Arrow points to the Pilbara rock sample in the device onboard Perseverance. Image credit: Marcus Strom.

“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,” stated Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for Science at NASA. “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.”

“Perseverance is the most sophisticated robotic geologist ever made, but verifying that microscopic life once existed carries an enormous burden of proof,” added Lori Glaze, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “While we’ll learn a lot with the great instruments we have aboard the rover, it may very well require the far more capable laboratories and instruments back here on Earth to tell us whether our samples carry evidence that Mars once harboured life.”

The instruments

To survive Martian entry at 21,000 km/h into an atmosphere which is 100 times thinner than Earth’s, Perseverance had to endure what NASA engineers call the ‘seven minutes of terror’. The Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrumentation 2 (MEDLI2) sensor suite collected data about Mars’s atmosphere during entry, and the Terrain-Relative Navigation system autonomously guided the spacecraft during final descent. The data from both are expected to help future human missions land on other worlds more safely and with larger payloads.

Having now safely landed on the surface of Mars, Perseverance’s scientific instruments will have an opportunity to shine. Mastcam-Z is a pair of zoomable science cameras on Perseverance’s remote sensing mast that creates high-resolution, colour 3D panoramas of the Martian landscape. Also located on the mast, the SuperCam uses a pulsed laser to study the chemistry of rocks and sediment and has its own microphone to help scientists better understand the property of the rocks, including their hardness.

Located on a turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm, the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) and the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instruments will work together to collect data on Mars’s geology close-up. PIXL will use an X-ray beam and suite of sensors to delve into a rock’s elemental chemistry. SHERLOC’s ultraviolet laser and spectrometer, along with its Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering (WATSON) imager, will study rock surfaces, mapping out the presence of certain minerals and organic molecules, which are the carbon-based building blocks of life on Earth.

The rover chassis is home to three instruments as well. The Radar Imager for Mars’s Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) is the first ground-penetrating radar on the surface of Mars and will be used to determine how different layers of the Martian surface formed over time. The data could help pave the way for future sensors that hunt for subsurface water ice deposits.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) technology demonstration will attempt to manufacture oxygen out of thin air — the Red Planet’s tenuous and mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere. The rover’s Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) instrument, which has sensors on the mast and chassis, will provide key information about present-day Mars weather, climate and dust.

Electricity and heat are provided to Perseverance through a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), provided to NASA by the US Department of Energy (DOE). Finally, attached to the belly of Perseverance is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Project engineers and scientists will now put Perseverance through its paces, testing every instrument, subsystem and subroutine over the next month or two. Only then will they deploy the helicopter to the surface for the flight test phase. If successful, Ingenuity could add an aerial dimension to exploration of the Red Planet in which such helicopters serve as scouts or make deliveries for future astronauts away from their base. Once Ingenuity’s test flights are complete, the search for evidence of ancient microbial life will begin.

Top image caption: Members of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover team watch in mission control as the first images arrive moments after the spacecraft successfully touched down on Mars. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

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