/NASA’s 2021 Mars Perseverance Rover on Track for Ambitious Landing, Search for Alien Life

NASA’s 2021 Mars Perseverance Rover on Track for Ambitious Landing, Search for Alien Life

If alien life once existed on Mars, scientists may finally be poised to find traces of it. After a seven-month, 292-million-mile journey, NASA’s biggest, fastest and brainiest rover ever—Perseverance—is nearing its highly anticipated touchdown on the Red Planet.

The $2.7 billion rover, which is scheduled to land at 3:55 p.m. EST on Thursday, embodies the latest and most ambitious effort by NASA to find evidence of past life on Mars. Though it is now a barren place of icy dunes, dust devils, dead volcanoes and subzero winds, scientists believe Mars in its remote past may have been a comparatively lush, warm world—one suitable for the chemistry of life.

“It will attempt to answer an age-old question that has eluded humanity for generations: whether life has ever existed elsewhere beyond our own planet,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the space agency’s science mission directorate in Washington, said of the Perseverance mission.

Bristling with sensors, cameras, microphones and a robotic arm, the one-ton, SUV-size Perseverance rover is designed to look for rock or soil specimens that might harbor evidence of ancient life and pack what it finds into small tubes, to be cached for retrieval by future missions and brought back to Earth for analysis. NASA and the European Space Agency are discussing several mission scenarios that might return these samples by 2031, NASA officials said.

If all goes well, NASA’s Perseverance rover will join four previous robotic vehicles that pioneered exploration of the red planet.

As the first rover on Mars, Sojourner was small and simple. It was about as long as a clarinet and weighed 25 lbs. It took pictures and sampled rocks. The winds of Mars kept dust off its solar panels, allowing it to last longer than expected.

Spirit was one of two larger rovers sent as a pair. Each one was about 5 feet long and weighed about 383 pounds. Spirit found rocks suggestive of hot springs, photographed a dust devil, and scaled a Martian mountain before becoming trapped in loose sands.

Still active, the Curiosity rover is about 9 feet long and weighs almost a ton. It gathered evidence that the crater basin where it landed was once an oasis.

Identical to Spirit, Opportunity landed on the opposite side of Mars. There, it discovered convincing signs that water had once flowed on the surface.

Set to land on Feb. 18, NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, is about 10 feet long and weighs just over a ton. It carries seven instruments to test for evidence of past Martian life and prepare samples for return to Earth. It also carries an experimental helicopter for test flights.

If all goes well, NASA’s Perseverance rover will join four previous robotic vehicles that pioneered exploration of the red planet.

As the first rover on Mars, Sojourner was small and simple. It was about as long as a clarinet and weighed 25 lbs. It took pictures and sampled rocks. The winds of Mars kept dust off its solar panels, allowing it to last longer than expected.

Spirit was one of two larger rovers sent as a pair. Each one was about 5 feet long and weighed about 383 pounds. Spirit found rocks suggestive of hot springs, photographed a dust devil, and scaled a Martian mountain before becoming trapped in loose sands.

Still active, the Curiosity rover is about 9 feet long and weighs almost a ton. It gathered evidence that the crater basin where it landed was once an oasis.

Identical to Spirit, Opportunity landed on the opposite side of Mars. There, it discovered convincing signs that water had once flowed on the surface.

Set to land on Feb. 18, NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, is about 10 feet long and weighs just over a ton. It carries seven instruments to test for evidence of past Martian life and prepare samples for return to Earth. It also carries an experimental helicopter for test flights.

If all goes well, NASA’s Perseverance rover will join four previous robotic vehicles that pioneered exploration of the red planet.

As the first rover on Mars, Sojourner was small and simple. It was about as long as a clarinet and weighed 25 lbs. It took pictures and sampled rocks. The winds of Mars kept dust off its solar panels, allowing it to last longer than expected.

Spirit was one of two larger rovers sent as a pair. Each one was about 5 feet long and weighed about 383 pounds. Spirit found rocks suggestive of hot springs, photographed a dust devil, and scaled a Martian mountain before becoming trapped in loose sands.

Identical to Spirit, Opportunity landed on the opposite side of Mars. There, it discovered convincing signs that water had once flowed on the surface.

Still active, the Curiosity rover is about 9 feet long and weighs almost a ton. It gathered evidence that the crater basin where it landed was once an oasis.

Set to land on Feb. 18, NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, is about 10 feet long and weighs just over a ton. It carries seven instruments to test for evidence of past Martian life and prepare samples for return to Earth. It also carries an experimental helicopter for test flights.

If all goes well, NASA’s Perseverance rover will join four previous robotic vehicles that pioneered exploration of the red planet.

As the first rover on Mars, Sojourner was small and simple. It was about as long as a clarinet and weighed 25 lbs. It took pictures and sampled rocks. The winds of Mars kept dust off its solar panels, allowing it to last longer than expected.

Spirit was one of two larger rovers sent as a pair. Each one was about 5 feet long and weighed about 383 pounds. Spirit found rocks suggestive of hot springs, photographed a dust devil, and scaled a Martian mountain before becoming trapped in loose sands.

Identical to Spirit, Opportunity landed on the opposite side of Mars. There, it discovered convincing signs that water had once flowed on the surface.

Still active, the Curiosity rover is about 9 feet long and weighs almost a ton. It gathered evidence that the crater basin where it landed was once an oasis.

Set to land on Feb. 18, NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, is about 10 feet long and weighs just over a ton. It carries seven instruments to test for evidence of past Martian life and prepare samples for return to Earth. It also carries an experimental helicopter for test flights.

During its two-year mission, Perseverance will roam the surface and look for traces of organic matter, which could be evidence of primordial microbes or other simple life-forms. Other places in the solar system—from the searing clouds of Venus to the frozen oceans of moons around Jupiter and Saturn—might also have the potential for life. But those places are considered even more inaccessible than Mars.

Perseverance is accompanied by the first helicopter to be transported to another world. NASA engineers expect to conduct several test flights of the four-pound drone, called Ingenuity. These would be the first powered controlled flights on another planet.

“It will truly be a Wright Brothers moment, but on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

But getting Perseverance and Ingenuity on the ground won’t be easy.

The Challenges of Landing on Mars

NASA mission engineers call landing on Mars “seven minutes of terror.” Hundreds of things have to go perfectly. The landing zone is the smallest NASA has ever targeted. The spacecraft, though, is on its own all the way down, guided solely by pre-programmed commands in its onboard computer. That’s because it takes about 11 minutes for a signal to travel from Earth to Mars, far too long for direct hands-on control. If all goes according to plan, here is how landing on Mars will work:

Source: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Following a harrowing plunge through the salmon pink skies and blue clouds of Mars—what NASA engineers call “seven minutes of terror”—the lander carrying Perseverance and Ingenuity will settle on an ancient lake bed called Jezero Crater. It is the smallest, most rugged landing zone upon which the space agency has ever attempted a landing.

Once the lander begins its automated descent, mission controllers on Earth will have no contact with it—and no way to control it—until it has landed. Radio transmissions take 11 minutes, 22 seconds to travel from one planet to the other—far too long to allow for controllers here on Earth to guide the craft.

Mission engineers radioed the spacecraft its pre-landing commands on Monday, activating onboard systems for entry, descent and landing and setting the stage for what may be the most daring engineering maneuver in interplanetary exploration. They said they didn’t expect any last-minute course corrections.

“The targeting is on the bull’s-eye,” said Jennifer Trosper, Perseverance deputy project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Perseverance is operating perfectly now and all systems are ‘go’ for landing. The spacecraft is focused. The team is focused.”

Touch Down

The U.S. and Chinese rovers scheduled to land on Mars this year could become the eighth and ninth spacecraft to land successfully on the planet since NASA’s Viking 1 landed there in 1976.

Failed landing or swift malfunction

Rosalind Franklin, expected to land on Mars in 2023, is a joint effort between Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities and the European Space Agency.

Source: NASA

Failed landing or swift malfunction

Rosalind Franklin, expected to land on Mars in 2023, is a joint effort between Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities and the European Space Agency.

Source: NASA

Failed landing or swift malfunction

Rosalind Franklin, expected to land on Mars in 2023, is a joint effort between Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities and the European Space Agency.

Source: NASA

Failed landing or quick malfunction

Rosalind Franklin, expected to land on Mars in 2023, is a joint effort between Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities and the European Space Agency.

Source: NASA

The lander, which carries Perseverance and Ingenuity inside a protective shell, will be going about 12,100 miles an hour—about 3 miles a second—when it enters the Martian atmosphere at 3:48 p.m. Thursday. Friction from the thin air will slow the craft and heat it to a temperature of about 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit. That is hot enough to melt cast iron.

Next, the lander will deploy a 70-foot-wide parachute, the largest high-speed chute ever constructed. Seconds later, the craft will jettison its protective heat shield and fire its retro rockets. As it descends, the lander’s onboard navigation should help it steer clear of obstacles on the ground below.

Once the lander comes within a few feet of the surface, it should lower Perseverance to the surface on cables, like a crane lowering a heavy package. Soon thereafter, NASA engineers expect to receive a signal indicating that Perseverance is safely on the ground.

China, the UAE and the U.S. all have spacecraft visiting Mars in February to study the Red Planet. WSJ explains how out-of-this-world technology is being used by NASA’s Perseverance and China’s Tianwen-1 in the search for evidence of life beyond our planet. Photo: NASA

“We [will] have a brand-new baby spacecraft ready to start rolling around,” said Erisa Stilley, Perseverance entry, descent, and landing systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

If the landing succeeds, it will be the ninth time NASA has managed to land a craft safely on Mars since it first successfully parked a lander on the planet’s surface in 1976. More than half of attempted landings on the Red Planet have failed.

China’s Tiawen-1 probe, which entered orbit around Mars last week, is expected to make the country’s first landing on the planet in May.

“Mars is hard, and we never take success for granted,” said Dr. Zurbuchen. “We are entirely focused on one thing right now—a successful landing.”

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Corrections & Amplifications
NASA’s lander will be traveling at about 3 miles a second when it enters the Martian atmosphere. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it would be traveling at about 3 miles a minute. (Corrected on Feb. 17)

Write to Robert Lee Hotz at sciencejournal@wsj.com

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