On Thursday afternoon, Perseverance, NASA’s most ambitious self-driving rover, will attempt the agency’s most challenging Mars landing. Perseverance is carrying a suite of science experiments that will search for signs of life, launch a drone helicopter, and record the planet’s audio for the first time. But conducting those experiments relies solely on whether “Percy” can stick the landing.
“I just want to say that landing on Mars is hard,” says Gregorio Villar, a systems engineer with Entry, Descent and Landing team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Historically, about half of the Mars landings attempted by the US have failed, and Perseverance will be the largest rover to attempt it. The location complicates things, too: The rover is aiming for Jezero Crater, a dry remnant of what scientists believe was a river delta 3.5 billion years ago. “Typically, we try to go to kind-of-safe spots, like very flat areas that are not too scary,” says Villar. “But then that’s kind of boring for the scientists, right?”
Perseverance launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on July 30, but its journey really began about a decade ago. “There are literally thousands of people over 10 years who worked on this,” says Villar. The new technology aboard the craft was designed to make challenging landings more realistic—and more intriguing Mars missions possible.
This mission primarily centers around searching for ancient traces of life. Once in the crater, Perseverance will use tools like the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry to examine soil textures for patterns indicating past microbial activity. The self-driving rover is equipped with a first-ever microphone, plus 23 cameras, including the SuperCam, a laser and camera setup that will analyze the chemical makeup of martian dust and minerals, potentially revealing traces of long-ago life.
The rover also carries technologies unrelated to the search for extraterrestrials. Ingenuity, a little helicopter aboard Perseverance, will perform the first controlled flight on another planet—a Wright Brothers-esque moment for JPL. And the experiments get power from a battery that continuously recharges with US-made plutonium fuel.
Since July, as Perseverance has been cruising toward Mars, the numerous antennae aboard have been pinging high-frequency signals to engineers back on Earth. One signal in the X band has relayed a sort of “heartbeat” throughout the rover’s journey. “Every certain amount of seconds, it’ll be like, ‘OK, I’m still good, I’m still good,’” says Villar.
Separate ultrahigh-frequency signals in the megahertz range can also transmit heavier files, like images from Perseverance’s onboard cameras. The rover will communicate with satellites orbiting the Red Planet, and those will transmit its signals back to Earth. (NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Maven satellite, and their NASA cousins have new company: The United Arab Emirates’ Hope mission recently positioned a probe in orbit, which has sent back its first images.) These communication channels will continue pinging NASA on landing day.
But even with all of the cameras and the microphone, don’t expect an instant video feed. Those large files will take a while to transmit. Even rudimentary communications like the “heartbeat tone” take 11 minutes and 22 seconds to reach Earth at this time of year. That delay means that NASA engineers won’t have real-time communication with the craft during the infamous “seven minutes of terror,” when it must survive its descent through the martian atmosphere and land autonomously.
You’ll be able to follow along with the news from mission control on the NASA TV Public Channel, the NASA App, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. The official NASA TV stream will begin at 2:15 pm EST on Thursday, February 18.
Here are some milestones to look for:
At 3:38 pm, 10 minutes before entering the atmosphere, the cruise stage should separate from the shell carrying the rover.
Perseverance is planned to enter the atmosphere at 3:48 pm, kicking off the “seven minutes of terror.”
The heat-protected shell should then glide toward Mars for about 14 minutes before deploying a parachute and dropping its heat shield. The parachute should deploy around 3:52 pm).
After a couple minutes of parachuting, the craft’s back shell will release Perseverance, carried by a sort of jetpack for a smooth, propelled descent. This “sky crane” will lower Perseverance on nylon tethers, detach, and fly off.
NASA hopes to touch down at 3:55 pm and share the first image about five minutes later.
WIRED will also provide updated coverage as soon as NASA officials confirm details about the landing.
After Perseverance lands, the experiments won’t begin right away. “Whenever you’re coming to a new environment, you want to reorient yourself,” Villar says. “We want to fully stretch out her limbs and open her eyes.” The rover’s first few days at Jezero will be spent snapping pictures, checking instruments, and updating the operating system to software more relevant to Mars exploration. “We’ll be at the current location for a few days, if not weeks,” Villar says.
More video and photos will be headed for Earth as the rover begins its exploration, and cameras onboard the landing craft will give NASA an unprecedented peek at the landing process. “We’ve never had footage like that, ever, on Mars,” says Villar. NASA officials hope they’ll have lo-res video available within a few days. “Maybe we can piece together actual footage of landing,” Villar says.
In the meantime, for Villar, these last few hours on approach are like those tantalizing moments for a kid whose family has taken a long road trip to Disneyland and has finally just pulled up outside the gates. “Getting into the car, I’m getting more and more excited. And then you’re driving through the freeway—now I’m really getting excited. And then you get to the parking lot and now you’re really amped,” says Villar. “I’m feeling like I’m at the parking lot at Disneyland right now.”
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