The largest and most sophisticated vehicle ever sent to Mars will land on the Red Planet next week, embarking on a two-year mission that will search for signs of life and pave the way for future human visits.
All is well on Thursday the $ 2.7 billion Perseverance rover will land on Jezero crater near the Martian equator to explore the planet’s surface and collect samples to send back to Earth. An on-board ultralight helicopter will also be launched in what would be the first powered flight to another planet.
“Persistence is a huge improvement over all of the previous landers and rovers we have sent to the planet,” said Professor Andrew Coates, a space scientist at University College London who has been involved in missions to Mars since. 20 years.
But the car-sized Perseverance must first survive what NASA engineers called “seven minutes of terror” when the previous Curiosity rover landed in 2012. That’s about the time. it takes to decelerate from the input speed of 20,000 km / h, when the craft reaches the Martian atmosphere, to a touch slower than walking.
The technology deployed will be an improved version of that of Curiosity, with additional safety features, including a “range trigger” to guide the opening of the craft’s parachute and maximize the chances of a smooth touchdown.
To do this, Perseverance will have to free himself from his parachute and begin a rocket-propelled descent – “a kind of jetpack with eight engines pointed towards the ground”, as Al Chen, the engineer in charge of the descent and the landing there.
The final phase will involve a “sky crane” lowering the rover to the surface on a set of cables. When the undercarriage feels that its wheels have touched the ground, it cuts the cables connecting it to the descent vehicle, which flies away to crash at a safe distance.
The descent may take as little as seven minutes, but mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California won’t know for 11 minutes – the time it takes for radio signals to return to Earth 200 yards – whether Perseverance has landed safely.
Crater lake was chosen as the drop site because NASA scientists believe it is one of the best places on Mars to look for signs of ancient microbial life. Over 3 billion years ago, when water flowed on Mars, it was a lake, fed by a river with a delta.
Perseverance will travel around the ancient and now parched terrain, armed with implements to dig and probe rocks and soil – physically and chemically – in search of fossilized signs of ancient life. Scientists don’t expect to find living organisms.
An aerial view of the crater will be provided by the Ingenuity helicopter, weighing just 1.8 kg, which is expected to perform five test flights. It’s not part of the main science mission but part of what NASA calls a technology demonstration, to show how well a rotorcraft can operate in the Martian atmosphere which is barely 1% as dense as that of Earth.
Another forward-looking technological experiment is the size of a toaster Experience using in situ oxygen resources from Mars, or Moxie, who will make oxygen from the thin air of Mars by electrochemically breaking down carbon dioxide. If astronauts were ever to land and live on the Red Planet, they would need locally produced oxygen for breathing and an ingredient for fuel.
Perseverance will also leave a legacy on the Martian surface for future missions. His Example of caching system will put broken rock and dust in metal cans and leave it to be collected and brought to Earth by future missions NASA is planning in collaboration with the European Space Agency.
In the early 2030s, they hope, scientists will be able to analyze these samples in terrestrial laboratories using equipment that is far too large and complex to be sent to another planet.
It is possible that Perseverance – or the Rosalind Franklin rover due to be launched next year as part of the European mission ExoMars – then found signs of past or even present life on Mars. Perseverance seeks, among other things, geological evidence of stromatolites, stratified deposits made by microbes in ancient Lake Jezero.
But confirmation may have to wait a few years for laboratory examination of the samples to return to Earth. “Even if we can’t find any evidence of life, that would be important,” said Ken Farley, Project Perseverance scientist. “We would have done a thorough exploration of a habitable environment and shown that it was not inhabited.”
If, on the other hand, compelling evidence of biological activity was found on the only habitable planet that has been studied beyond Earth, scientists could draw just one conclusion: the universe is teeming with life.