NASA’s Mars Rover Endurance ran into the final stretch of its seven-month journey from Earth on its way to a nail-biting landing attempt on Thursday on an old, alien seabed, where scientists hope to find signs of fossilized microbial life
Endurance, the most advanced astrobiology lab that ever flew to another world, was on its way to a self-controlled touchdown inside a large, rocky basin called the Jezero Crater at the edge of a remaining river delta carved into the red planet billions of years ago.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles are hoping to get a confirmation of the landing, and possibly a first image from the rover, shortly after arrival, set at 12:55 PST (2055 GMT). These transmissions will be transmitted to Earth from one of several satellites already in orbit around Mars.
What makes Jezero Crater terrain – deeply etched by long-lost flows of liquid water – so exciting for scientists also makes it particularly treacherous as a landing site.
“It’s full of things that scientists want to see but things that I do not want to land on,” Al Chen, head of JPL’s descent and landing team, told reporters on Wednesday.
Gaining perseverance to his destination in one piece after the journey of 293 million miles, he added, is far from certain.
The multi-stage spacecraft, which extends into the Martian atmosphere at 120,000 km per hour, must perfectly and quickly perform a complex series of self-guided maneuvers to slow the descent, avoid innumerable surface risks and plant carefully upright on all six wheels.
The seemingly long-awaited sequence includes a dangerous parachute distribution at supersonic speeds and a rocket-powered “sky crane” designed to detach from the entry capsule, fly to a safe landing site and lower the rover on a tether, before pulling away to crash a safe distance away .
The whole process is set to evolve within a heartbreaking range that NASA engineers jokingly call “the seven minutes of terror.”
Because it takes radio waves 11 minutes to travel a path between Mars and Earth, the SUV size will have already reached the surface of Mars – intact or not – when its atmospheric input signal is received during mission control.
Looking for microbial fossils
NASA scientists describe endurance as the most ambitious of nearly 20 US missions to Mars that go back to a 1965 Mariner flight.
Larger and packed with more instruments than the four Mars rovers that preceded it, the latest mobile robot probe would build on previous discoveries that the fourth planet from the sun was once warmer, wetter and possibly hospitable for life.
The primary goal of the $ 2.7 billion two-year endurance test is to look for signs of microbes that may have blossomed on Mars about 3 billion years ago, about the time life on Earth.
Scientists hope to find biosignatures embedded in samples of ancient sediments that endurance is designed to extract from rocks for analysis back on Earth – the first specimens ever collected by humans from another planet.
Two future missions are planned to collect the samples and return them to NASA in the coming decade.
The payload of sustainability also includes demonstration projects that can help pave the way for possible human exploration of Mars, including a device to convert the carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere into pure oxygen.
The box-shaped tool is the first to be built to extract a natural resource for direct use to humans from an extraterrestrial environment, according to Lori Glaze, head of NASA’s planetary science department. It would prove invaluable for future life support on Mars and for producing rocket propellants to fly astronauts home.
Another experimental prototype carried by Perseverance is a miniature helicopter designed to test the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. If successful, the 4-pound whirlybird could lead to low-altitude surveillance of distant worlds, JPL officials said.
If it lands safely, perseverance will have company elsewhere on the red planet. Its immediate predecessor, the rover Curiosity, which landed in 2012 and has long survived its design life, is still in operation for NASA, as is the stationary lander InSight, which arrived in November 2018 to study the deep interior of Mars.
The United States is hardly alone in its fascination with Mars. Just last week, separate probes launched by the United Arab Emirates and China reached Mars orbit.
NASA has three Mars satellites that are still in orbit, along with two from the European Space Agency.