Perseverance’s long journey to Mars is almost over. Launched on July 30, 2020, the rover is expected to land inside Jezero Crater on February 18, as planned. Here is everything you need to know to follow this exceptional event.
Since its launch, the American rover Perseverance cross space with the red planet targeted. If all goes according to plan, on February 18, the small car-sized vehicle (the heaviest and most sophisticated ever sent to March) will complete its six-month journey with a hopefully smooth landing.
Putting your wheels on Mars is indeed a very complicated undertaking. For your information, only 40% of missions have landed successfully since the 1960s. Some landers flew over Mars, completely missing the planet, while others crashed on the surface. For Perseverance, we will therefore have to cross our fingers.
If successful, it will be the fifth NASA rover to land on Mars, after Sojourner (1997), twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity (2004) and Curiosity (2012).
Once operational, Perseverance will probe in particular for the presence of traces of past life in the Jezero crater, a basin forty-five kilometers wide believed to have housed a river delta 3 to 3.5 billion years ago, positioned at the mouth of a large lake. If there are indeed traces of life on Mars, then they may be there, hidden under a few centimeters of rocks.
How to follow the event?
For those interested, NASA will cover the event live on its website from 2:15 p.m. Eastern Time (8:15 p.m. French time). A live will also be available from 8 p.m. on the excellent YouTube channel Astro Alex – the Space & Aero Channel for francophones.
For this edition, don’t expect any celebratory hugs, like after Curiosity landed in 2012. This year’s event will indeed be more “moderate” due to the pandemic. Crew members at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. Will be masked and limited to essential personnel to prevent the spread of the virus.
For the thousands of scientists who have helped Perseverance get there, nerves will naturally be on edge. “It’s a bit surreal“, Says Swati Mohan, responsible for guidance, navigation and control operations for March 2020.“The team did all they could before landing. Now we just have to trust our team and the hard work we have done so far to get us to the finish line.“.
Seven minutes of terror
After six months of travel, the actual entry, descent and landing process will take place in just seven minutes. This will be the riskiest seven minutes of the mission. To make matters worse, the operators will also be “blind”. Given the distance from Mars to Earth, Perseverance’s radio signals will indeed take eleven minutes and twenty-two seconds to reach mission control.
So by the time the operators register the signal that the rover has indeed reached the top of the Martian atmosphere, Perseverance will have already landed (or crashed). There will be no button to press, no joystick available. The rover will have to land completely independently.
The first major milestone for this event will occur at approximately 3:38 p.m. EST (9:38 p.m. PST). At that precise moment, the rover capsule will detach from the probe. Ten minutes later, the capsule should pierce the atmosphere of Mars, speeding at nearly 20,000 km / h. To start slowing down, the vehicle will need to perform a maneuver similar to that of airplanes, when pilots wait for the green light to land at an airport. A parachute will then open to further slow down the capsule.
Finally, when approaching the surface, the descent stage (with Perverance in its belly) will detach from the parachute. At 21 meters above the ground, the rover will then be lowered after three cables. As soon as the system controlling the descent detects that the tensile forces exerted on the cables have weakened as a result of the effective removal of Perseverance, the descent stage will deviate and crash at approximately 150 meters.