NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars to search for signs of ancient life
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – A NASA rover crossed the Martian orange sky and landed on the planet on Thursday, completing the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could indicate whether the life never existed on Mars.
Ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Cheered and traded punches and punches in triumph – and relief – upon receiving confirmation that the six-wheeled Perseverance had landed on the red planet, long a death trap for incoming spaceship.
It took 11 and a half minutes of voltage for the signal to reach Earth.
“Touchdown confirmed! Safe perseverance on the surface of Mars, ready to start looking for signs of past life, ”flight controller Swati Mohan told colleagues who wore coronavirus masks.
The landing marks the third visit to Mars in just over a week. Two spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China orbit Mars several days in a row last week. All three missions took off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars, covering some 300 million kilometers in nearly seven months.
Perseverance, the largest and most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, became the ninth spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, each of them coming from the United States, starting in the 1970s.
The plutonium-powered car-sized vehicle arrived at Jezero Crater, hitting NASA’s smallest and most delicate target to date: a 5-by-4-mile strip on a former full river delta. pits, cliffs and rock fields. Scientists believe that if life had ever flourished on Mars, it would have happened 3 to 4 billion years ago, while water was still flowing on the planet.
Over the next two years, Percy, as he’s known, will use his 7-foot (2-meter) arm to drill and collect rock samples showing possible signs of microscopic bygone life. Three to four dozen chalk-sized samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside on Mars to be picked up by a rover and brought home by another rocket. The goal is to bring them back to Earth by 2031.
Scientists hope to answer one of the central questions of theology, philosophy and space exploration.
“Are we alone in this sort of vast cosmic wasteland, just flying through space, or is life much more common?” Does it emerge when and where the conditions are right? Said project associate scientist Ken Williford. “We are really on the verge of being able to answer these huge questions.”
The Chinese spacecraft includes a smaller rover that will also seek evidence of life – if it descends safely from orbit in May or June.
Perseverance was on its own during the “Seven Minute of Terror” descent described by NASA.
Flight controllers waited helplessly as the preprogrammed spacecraft struck the thin Martian atmosphere of 95% carbon dioxide at 12,100 km / h (19,500 km / h), or 16 times the speed of sound, slowing as it qu ‘he was collapsing.
He released his 21-meter parachute, released his heat shield, and then used a rocket-directed platform known as the Celestial Crane to lower the rover the last 60 feet (18 meters) to the surface.
Perseverance quickly returned a grainy black-and-white photo of the pockmarked surface of Mars, with the rover’s shadow visible in the frame. The rover appears to have landed about 35 meters from the nearest rocks.
“Take this, Jezero! a controller called.
Mars has turned out to be a dangerous place: In less than three months in 1999, an American spacecraft was destroyed on entering orbit because engineers had mixed up metric and English units, and an American lander crashed into Mars after its engines stopped prematurely.
Perseverance will conduct an experiment in which it converts small amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into oxygen, a process that could be a boon to future astronauts by providing breathable air and an ingredient for rocket fuel.
The rover is also equipped with a record 25 cameras and two microphones, many of which are turned on during the descent. Among the never-before-seen sights that NASA intends to return in the next few days: the huge supersonic parachute opening up and the ground getting closer.
“A feast for the eyes and the ears. It will be really spectacular, ”observed Jim Bell of Arizona State University, senior scientist for a pair of mast cameras that will serve as the rover’s eyes.
NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to bring the rocks home. The Perseverance mission alone costs nearly $ 3 billion.
The only way to confirm – or rule out – signs of past life is to analyze the samples in the best laboratories in the world. Instruments small enough to be sent to Mars would not have the necessary precision.
“This is truly the most extraordinary, complicated and future exploration campaign,” said David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency, on the eve of the landing. .