When NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance, a robotic astrobiology lab packed inside a space capsule, hits the final stretch of its seven-month journey from Earth this week, it is set to emit a radio alert as it streaks into the thin Martian atmosphere.
By the time that signal reaches mission managers some 127 million miles (204 million km) away at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles, Perseverance will already have landed on the Red Planet – hopefully in one piece.
The six-wheeled rover is expected to take seven minutes to descend from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the planet’s surface in less time than the 11-minute-plus radio transmission to Earth. Thus, Thursday’s final, self-guided descent of the rover spacecraft is set to occur during a white-knuckled interval that JPL engineers affectionately refer to as the “seven minutes of terror.”
Al Chen, head of the JPL descent and landing team, called it the most critical and most dangerous part of the $2.7 billion mission.
“Success is never assured,” Chen told a recent news briefing. “And that’s especially true when we’re trying to land the biggest, heaviest, and most complicated rover we’ve ever built to the most dangerous site we’ve ever attempted to land at.”
Mission of Perseverance
From there, the nuclear battery-powered rover, roughly the size of a small SUV, will embark on the primary objective of its two-year mission – engaging a complex suite of instruments in the search for signs of microbial life that may have flourished on Mars billions of years ago.
Advanced power tools will drill samples from Martian rock and seal them into cigar-sized tubes for eventual return to Earth for further analysis – the first such specimens ever collected by humankind from the surface of another planet.
Two future missions to retrieve those samples and fly them back to Earth are in the planning stages by NASA, in collaboration with the European Space Agency.
Perseverance, the fifth and by far most sophisticated rover vehicle NASA has sent to Mars since Sojourner in 1997, also incorporates several pioneering features not directly related to astrobiology.
Among them is a small drone helicopter, nicknamed Ingenuity, that will test surface-to-surface powered flight on another world for the first time. If successful, the four-pound (1.8-kg) whirlybird could pave the way for low-altitude aerial surveillance of Mars during later missions.
Another experiment is a device to extract pure oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, a tool that could prove invaluable for future human life support on Mars and for producing rocket propellants to fly astronauts home.
Should everything work, deputy project manager Matthew Wallace said, post-landing exuberance would be on full display at JPL despite COVID-19 safety protocols that have kept close contacts within mission control to a minimum.
“I don’t think COVID is going to be able to stop us from jumping up and down and fist-bumping,” Wallace said.