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NASA prepares to land a rover on Mars

NASA rover set to land on Mars
Posted at 10:07 AM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 12:07:01-05

GREAT FALLS — It’s a big day for NASA as the agency prepares to land a rover on Mars for the first time since 2012. "Perseverance" is serving many purposes, including collecting samples of Martian rock and soil. The rover will also be searching for signs of ancient life. MTN’s Shannon Newth talked with Eric Ianson, the NASA Mars Exploration Program Director, about this historic mission.

The Mars rover launched on July 30, 2020, and is set to land on Mars on Thursday afternoon. According to NASA, the rover’s landing will be the most challenging touchdown on Mars ever attempted by the agency. The landing will conclude a 293 million mile journey by the craft.

The rover is scheduled to land on Mars at around 3:55 p.m. ET on Thursday. The landing can be viewed on the NASA website.

For seven minutes, NASA engineers will be on pins and needles as the rover makes it way from the top of the atmosphere to the surface.

“Entry, descent and landing is often referred to as the 'seven minutes of terror,'” said Swati Mohan, Mars 2020 guidance and controls operations lead. “Because it takes about seven minutes to get from the top of the atmosphere of Mars to the ground safely.”

The craft is set to enter the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 mph, but a series of parachutes will slow the craft to 2 mph. Then, during what is known as the sky crane maneuver, the descent stage will lower the rover on three cables to land softly on six wheels, NASA said.

“Perseverance will be the first mission to use Terrain Relative Navigation,” Mohan said. “So while it’s descending on the parachute, it will actually be taking images of the surface of Mars and determining where to go based on what it sees. This is finally like landing with your eyes open.”

The rover will land on Jerezo Crater, which was targeted due to a high likelihood of past life. It is believed that Jerezo Crater contained rivers of liquid water in Mars’ ancient past. Perseverance will be tasked with examining rocks that are up to 3.6 billion years old.

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“The science team identified Jezero Crater as basically an ancient lakebed,” said Matt Smith, a spacecraft systems engineer and researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “And one of the most promising places to look for evidence of ancient microbial life and to collect samples for future return to Earth. The problem is it’s a much more hazardous place to land.”

Landing in the crater poses additional challenges for scientists.

“Having this new technology really allows Perseverance to land in much more challenging terrain than Curiosity or any previous Mars mission could,” Mohan said. “Amongst the rocks and the craters and the cliffs - these things are hazardous to the rover but these are the things that are interesting to the scientists.”

“I mean, until we get the data that says we’re on the ground safely, I’m gonna be worried that we’re not gonna make it,” said Erisa Stilley, a NASA entry, descent, and landing systems engineer and operations co-lead.

What is also unique about Perseverance is that it is set to be the first rover to collect a sample to return to Earth.

Here are some facts about the Perseverance:

  • It is about size of a car; it’s about 10 feet long, 9 feet tall and 7 feet tall
  • It weight 2,260 pounds
  • The rover has 19 cameras
  • The rover will have traveled 293 million miles by the time it lands on Mars
  • It is scheduled for a one-year mission
  • As the craft enters the Martian atmosphere, it will encounter temperatures of 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit

While the craft is set to land on Mars at 3:55 p.m. ET on Thursday, it will take more than 11 minutes for NASA to confirm the craft arrived safely due to the speed of light and the distance between Earth and Mars.