'I'm Safe On Mars' – NASA's Perseverance Rover Lands On Red Planet To Look For Signs Of Ancient Life

'I'm Safe On Mars' – NASA's Perseverance Rover Lands On Red Planet To Look For Signs Of Ancient Life

by Karan Kamble - Friday, February 19, 2021 04:54 AM IST
'I'm Safe On Mars' – NASA's Perseverance Rover Lands On Red Planet To Look For Signs Of Ancient LifeA look at Jezero crater on Mars, courtesy the hazard camera on the spacecraft
  • NASA's Mars Perseverance rover landed safely on the Red Planet.

    Mission objectives include the search for signs of ancient life and collection of rock and sediment samples for return to Earth on future missions.

The United States has successfully landed its fifth rover on Mars.

NASA’s Perseverance rover, accompanied by the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, touched down in Jezero Crater at 2.25 am, 19 February, Indian Standard Time.

The terrain where the rover settled was the most challenging place to land of any Martian sites previously targeted, because of the presence of steep cliffs, sand dunes, and boulder fields.

But despite that, the 45-km-wide Jezero Crater, which is named after the small Balkan town of Jezero in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was chosen for its special significance as a possible home for ancient Martian life.

It is believed that once upon a time a river flowed into a lake here and deposited sediments forming a delta. Though the water may be long gone, hidden in here could be preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life.

By getting a closer look, NASA’s most ambitious Mars rover mission yet will hope to learn whether the Red Planet was ever home to life in the 4.6 billion (~460 crore) years of its existence.

"Studying the possible emergence of life on ancient Mars can also help us better understand the conditions that led to life on our own planet,” NASA deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan said in the run-up to the historic landing.

After reaching the top of the Martian atmosphere, the rover descended to the surface after a decisive part of the journey described affectionately as the “seven minutes of terror”, first explained by NASA scientists prior to landing the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.

This ‘entry, descent, landing’ or ‘EDL’ phase involves going from a speed of about 20,000 kilometres per hour to stand-still in a short span of seven minutes.

During this course, air pockets of varying density can nudge the spacecraft off course, but small firing thrusters on the spacecraft enable the adjustments necessary to keep it on track.

The additional challenge in this stage is that the spacecraft is on its own during this harrowing phase because of the time delay in communicating back to Earth. At the speed of light, a signal takes more than 11 minutes to travel one way between the planets.

This is why, according to NASA, only about 40 per cent of Mars missions have been successful.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission has found its place in this minority success bracket.

The joy was evident from the cheers that erupted in mission control at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, seen in the agency's live broadcast.

Soon after touch-down, the spacecraft relayed back its first image captured using the "hazard camera" on-board, which is used mainly to get the rover safely around Mars.

Higher quality images are expected later in the day.

The first image captured and relayed after the Perseverance rover touched down on the surface of Mars. (Photo: NASA/Twitter)
The first image captured and relayed after the Perseverance rover touched down on the surface of Mars. (Photo: NASA/Twitter)

Taking pictures and transmitting them back to Earth is among the the first things that the rover was assigned to do.

Luckily, it has sufficient help.

There are 19 cameras on the rover and four on other parts of the spacecraft. Never before have so many cameras, 23 in all, been sent to Mars.

Inspection of the rover will follow and go on for weeks, as new flight software will be loaded to enable the rover to go about its planned mission of searching for ancient life on the Red Planet.

NASA says the rover will “characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and will be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and sediment for later return to Earth”.

Future NASA missions, with the European Space Agency as a partner, will be tasked with collecting the samples off the surface and bringing them back to Earth for a detailed investigation.

Here, on Earth, instruments more sophisticated than can be sent along with a rover will carry out precise and extensive analyses.

“Perseverance is the first step in bringing back rock and regolith from Mars. We don’t know what these pristine samples from Mars will tell us. But what they could tell us is monumental – including that life might have once existed beyond Earth,” NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said in the official announcement after the touch-down.

While the rover may draw all the attention, there is the Ingenuity helicopter, which is poised to become the first aircraft to attempt powered, controlled flight on another planet.

The chopper will be deployed after Perseverance is tested rigorously for more than a month.

After the completion of the test flights, the rover will begin its search for ancient life.

To do that, though, the rover has plenty of help.

The Perseverance mission will be enlisting the help of two particularly important instruments in SHERLOC and PIXL.

SHERLOC, an acronym for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals, will be able to detect organic matter and minerals.

PIXL, short for Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, on the other hand, will be able to map the chemical make-up of rocks and sediments.

There are also the Mastcam-Z and SuperCam. The former will be able to create high-resolution, 3D panoramas of the surface in colour while the latter will help with reading the chemistry of Martian rocks.

The Terrain-Relative Navigation technology, which helped the spacecraft get down to the surface by reading the location and modifying the trajectory as and when required, is expected to come in handy during future robotic and crewed missions involving landing on the Moon.

Some technologies will be tested on this mission with an eye on the human exploration of Mars in the future.

For instance, Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment or MOXIE will attempt to produce oxygen from the planet’s carbon dioxide atmosphere.

Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer or MEDA will help with necessary information about weather and surface ultraviolet radiation and dust.

Equipped with these numerous scientific tools, after the conclusion of a 203-day journey from Florida to the surface of Mars, the work only now begins for NASA's Perseverance.

Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.

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