home straight for the Perseverance rover

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The Perseverance rover’s long journey to the planet is almost over. The vehicle, launched on July 30, is expected to land inside Jezero crater on February 18, as planned, has just know at NASA.

Perseverance is the centerpiece of the U.S. March 2020 mission ($ 2.7 billion). Its main objective will be to search for traces of past life in the soil of the Jezero Crater, a forty-five kilometer-wide formation once carpeted by a lake and a delta of rivers.

Naturally, it will likely be difficult for Perseverance to definitively prove the presence of fossilized life, if as long as it is present, mission team members said. Also, the rover will take care of putting the most promising samples under seal for a future mission led jointly by NASA and ESA aimed at bringing them back to Earth in the early 2030s. It would then be a question of a first.

These Martian materials can then be studied by scientists relying on advanced instrumentation, just as was the case with moon rocks from the Apollo missions. “These samples will thus have the potential to profoundly change our understanding of the origin, evolution and distribution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system”said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

Seven minutes of terror

Of course, this will only be possible if the rover lands successfully. We cannot repeat it enough, but it is very complicated to land on this planet, so thin is its atmosphere. Especially with its 1025 kilos on the scale, Perseverance is heavier than any other payload ever sent to Mars.

“I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that entering, descending and landing is the most critical and dangerous part of this mission.”, noted in fact Allen Chen, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA. “ Success is never guaranteed. And that’s especially true when we’re trying to land the biggest, heaviest and most complicated rover we’ve ever built on the most dangerous site we’ve ever attempted to land ”.

As was the case with the Curiosity rover, the most critical moments of this mission will probably be the last minutes of the landing phase; seven minutes of terror during which Perseverance will no longer be able to communicate with Earth.

This illustration shows the final stages of the Perseverance rover’s nearly seven-month journey. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

A first “helicopter” on another planet

This mission is also expected to pave the way for future unprecedented exploration efforts. A small rotorcraft named Ingenuity, for example, will be deployed to Mars shortly after Perseverance lands. Its objective will be to perform several test flights, the first ever made by a vehicle on another planet. If Ingenuity works well, then these small helicopters could be cruising the Martian skies in the near future, serving as scouts for rovers and other human explorers, and / or collecting data themselves.

Perseverance also includes an instrument called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment) which aims to generate oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere dominated by carbon dioxide (CO2). Such technology, when scaled up, could help future explorers settle on the Red Planet.

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