Hundreds of people have put nearly 10 years of work into developing NASA’s most advanced robotic explorer yet, the Perseverance rover, and the moment is almost here.
The rover is scheduled to land on Mars Thursday at 3:55 p.m. ET.
Perhaps some of the hardest work was readying the mission during its final stages before launch in July during a pandemic. Much like the mission’s name, her team persevered to make it happen and launch the rover rather than accept a delay that would be costly both in loss of science and money.
The rover carries a tribute to health care workers around the world. The 3-by-5-inch aluminum plate, installed on the left side of the rover chassis, shows Earth supported by the ancient symbol of the serpent entwined around a rod to represent the global medical community. A line represents the rover’s trajectory from Central Florida to Mars, according to NASA.
“We wanted to demonstrate our appreciation for those who have put their personal well-being on the line for the good of others,” said Matt Wallace, Perseverance deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.
“It is our hope that when future generations travel to Mars and happen upon our rover, they will be reminded that back on Earth in the year 2020 there were such people.”
Perseverance also carries the names of nearly 11 million people etched on three silicon chips. She is a robotic scientist exploring Mars on behalf of humanity, and she’ll be able to share what she sees and hears through 23 cameras, including video, and two microphones.
Along for the ride is Ingenuity, the first helicopter that will fly on another planet.
“I’m just in awe because we’re a day out from landing in this ancient lake bed in search for potential ancient life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “It is a culmination of decades of work by NASA and the international community.”
Conversations began about the Perseverance rover, then known as the Mars 2020 mission, soon after the Curiosity rover landed in 2012, said Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator.
Missions begin with the science. Mars 2020 was designed to focus on investigating potentially habitable places on Mars that could have supported ancient life, as well as exploring the geological and climate history of the planet, he said.
She would be modeled on Curiosity’s design, but weigh a little heavier, move a little faster and stand a little taller. And she would need a new set of scientific instruments to investigate if life was once possible on Mars, and if so, search for evidence of that ancient life.
Perseverance – “Percy” as her team affectionately calls her – would also be going to the most intriguing, yet most treacherous, landing site yet in Jezero Crater. Full of hazards, like cliffs and boulders, it was once the site of an ancient lake and river delta 3.9 billion years ago.
Previous NASA rovers, like Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, have “followed the water” to learn more about what Mars was like in the past. The Viking mission intended to look for life on the red planet, but scientists at NASA have learned more since then about Mars, as well as how life forms and exists on Earth, which helps them hypothesize what it may do on other planets.
“We know that the experiments that we designed probably weren’t quite the right way to go about that exercise,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Perseverance is the first real astrobiology mission and one of its main purposes is to seek out those signs of past life on Mars.”
Landing on Mars
Perseverance will land herself on Mars Thursday. She’s received her commands and she’s ready to go, her mission team confirmed Wednesday.
Due to the time delay between Earth and Mars, Perseverance is on her own during the “7 minutes of terror” of landing. She plunges into the atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour and has to slow down, using parachutes and retrorockets, to 0 miles per hour seven minutes later when she reaches the surface.
Her team will anxiously be watching for the data she relays back through the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to know if she landed safely or not. Then, the real journey begins as the rover explores Jezero Crater for the next two years.
While Perseverance is very autonomous, she still needs to talk to her teams on Earth before driving on Mars, shooting lasers at rocks or collecting samples. Her teams, with members spread across the globe, will transition to “Mars time,” beginning their days about 2 p.m. local time on Mars. For many, especially those at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this means getting up later in the day and working into the night.
“Mars days are 40 minutes longer than the Earth days, so you’re always shifting by 40 minutes every day and that gets you jetlagged,” said Jennifer Trosper, Perseverance deputy project manager. “But we do this because we want to be very efficient with the mission.”
Basically, Perseverance’s teams need to be awake when the rover is awake.
Trosper has worked on all five rover missions, and she finally broke down and bought a sleep mask this year, so she’s ready to be on Mars time for a while.
“We’re really looking forward to the landing tomorrow,” Jurczyk said.
“The team has done an amazing job. They always do, and particularly, being able to launch in July, and now landing in these really challenging times. It’s just going to be an amazing mission, between the scientific knowledge we’re going to gain and the technology it will demonstrate. And then the caching samples for the Mars Sample Return mission, we’re planning to launch in 2026 and return samples by the early 2030s. This is going to be a truly incredible mission.”
The agency has been sending missions to explore Mars since 1965, sharing images and knowledge gained about our fascinating neighbor. Mars has been one of the most accessible places in our solar system to send missions. But it also has a mysterious history and it may have once been a lot of like Earth – meaning it’s a great place to search for ancient life.
“Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our solar system,” Jurczyk said. “That’s really intriguing because by studying the geological and climate history of the planet and how it evolved, we can also inform how Earth has evolved and how it will evolve in the future.”
The capable robots exploring Mars now lay the groundwork for landing human missions on the red planet in the future, Jurczyk said.