By Matt Zhang
On Thursday, February 18th 2021, NASA’s newest Mars rover Perseverance successfully landed on the surface of the red planet. After a year-long journey from Earth, it had finally reached its destination. On a monumental day for space exploration, NASA landed their fifth Martian rover facing a 40% success rate for rover landings. Thanks to the immense efforts from all those at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Perseverance marks a new age in Martian exploration, and takes us one step closer to the colonization of Mars.
Fitted with the most technologically advanced equipment in the modern era, Perseverance was a delicate machine and would have been unable to endure rough impacts. As a result, great effort was invested into preserving its structure and ensuring it would land safely. The engineers of the Perseverance rover faced an extraordinary challenge given that the rover would be required to decelerate from around 16,500 km/h to 0, all in 7 minutes. This is known as the “7 minutes of terror”. Due to the distance between Mars and Earth, it takes 17 minutes for radio signals to reach Perseverance. This means that the entire landing process must be automated as there would be no feasible way to address problems as they arise remotely. The landing systems have to be updated and perform checks many times a second to scout a location as well as prepare the landing rockets and sky crane. Meanwhile on Earth, when the signals arrive the rover will have already landed on Mars, in one piece or not. Fortunately, Perseverance performed its job, landing itself in a safe area, to the ecstatic cheers of scientists at JPL.
During its time on Mars, Perseverance will have many goals. Powered by plutonium and about the size of an SUV, the rover will use its equipment to navigate the terrain and collect rock samples using small drills. These will be collected later by astronauts or spacecrafts and returned to Earth, estimated at around 2031 in 15 gram titanium samples. Its landing zone, Jerezo Crater, is thought to be the remains of an old Martian lake that existed over 3 billion years ago. NASA estimates that these locations will provide the best opportunity to investigate potential life on Mars, as those same regions on Earth are rich with life. During its time on Mars, it will also carry around a small helicopter, Ingenuity, that will be tested. If successful, it will be the first powered interplanetary flight. Especially on Mars, where the atmosphere is only 1% of Earth’s and the gravity around a third, this could potentially be an enormous achievement. Perseverance will also use its cameras to take photos of the Martian landscape and send them back to Earth throughout its journey.
If you would like to learn more about Perseverance, please refer to the following resources:
Perseverance infopage: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/
Landing simulator: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/timeline/landing/entry-descent-landing/