Earlier in the day, scientists had been looking at these ‘seven minutes of terror’ and hoping that all went smoothly as Perseverance readied itself to undertake an autonomous landing.
NASA Perseverance Rover Mars Landing: NASA’s Perseverance Rover lands safely on the surface of Mars! The atmosphere inside the mission control room could be seen changing from tense to one full of joy within seconds as the scientists received confirmation that the Perseverance Rover had safely touched down on the surface of the Red Planet. NASA landed its fifth rover on the Martian surface in the early hours of Friday (India time) merely seven minutes after its probe entered the top of the atmosphere of the neighbouring planet. Perseverance had been launched by the US space agency in July last year.
Earlier in the day, scientists had been looking at these ‘seven minutes of terror’ and hoping that all went smoothly as Perseverance readied itself to undertake an autonomous landing 127 million miles away from the Earth. An autonomous landing was necessary because at its current distance from the Earth, a command would take 11 minutes to reach the spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet, which would be immensely slow as well as dangerous for a spacecraft attempting to land on another celestial body. However, the relief in the room was palpable even through computer screens when the rover touched the surface of Mars and the joy could be felt a few minutes later when the first images from Perseverance came through.
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Why was this mission historic?
NASA had decided to land Perseverance in the same manner as it had done with the Curiosity Rover back in 2012. However, what made this more difficult was the fact that Perseverance was aiming to land at the Jezero Crater, which is one of the most difficult landing sites ever to be attempted on the Red Planet.
But, for the mission that Perseverance was embarking upon, landing at Jezero was a necessity. Perseverance has been sent to find traces of ancient microbial life under the surface of Mars, as well as collect surface samples and rocks to be sent to Earth for further research. For this mission, Jezero is an ideal site, as it is believed to have once contained a lake, which was filled with water, considering the fact that it had an inflow as well as an outflow channel. Not only that, but the crater also has one of the most well-preserved delta deposits on Mars. As Perseverance Project Scientist Ken Farley put it, the crater was a wonderful place for microorganisms to live and to be preserved.
Apart from this, the Perseverance also became the first mission to use the Terrain-Relative Navigation, in which the rover looked at the ground below it using a camera in order to assess the terrain below and undertake safe landing.
Just like Curiosity, Perseverance travelled to Mars powered by a heat shield, and entered the Martian atmosphere. It then started to decelerate, and four minutes after the entry into the atmosphere, when the probe reached a velocity of 420 m/s, a supersonic parachute was deployed from the spacecraft. A mere 20 seconds later, when the velocity slowed to 160 m/s and the probe was at an altitude of seven to 11 kms, the heat shield was separated from the probe, allowing Perseverance to activate Terrain-Relative Navigation and assess its location.
When the Perseverance was 5 minutes and 50 seconds into its entry, the back shell, which was connected to the parachute, was shed by it and a sky crane holding on to the rover was activated, leading to a powered descent. From an altitude of 213 metres, and at a velocity of .75 metres per second, the sky crane placed the Perseverance rover on the Martian surface with the help of cables, leading to the touchdown of the rover on Mars 410 seconds after it first entered the atmosphere of Mars.
Importance of mission to NASA
Perseverance marks the fifth rover that NASA has sent to the Red Planet since 1997. So why is this so important? During the live telecast of the landing, NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said that Perseverance Rover was ushering in a new era of Mars exploration. The agency, he said, had now shifted from sending a rover that would look around and look at its surroundings to one that would collect samples from the Martian surface and send them to Earth. It was significant because the agency had now sent a robotic geologist which would look for signs of ancient microbial life. This is the major mission that Perseverance is going to be carrying out during its time on the Red Planet. Perseverance is scheduled to spend at least one Martian year, which is nearly 700 days, on Mars.
Another key event that the Perseverance mission would result in is the testing of the Ingenuity Helicopter, Zurbuchen said. Ingenuity Helicopter has reached Mars while being attached to the belly of Perseverance. The helicopter will, for the first time ever, take powered flight in space, and this will happen in the coming months, now that the rover has landed. It is aimed to test how controlled flights are occurring on the Red Planet, and if successful, it would give scientists a new method of surveying the terrain of the planet. It could also act as a complete spacecraft to deliver instrument payloads. Though it is a small part of the Mars Mission 2020, which will in no way impact the main mission that Perseverance is hoping to undertake, it is still an important milestone for NASA.
Operating the mission during the pandemic
The name ‘Perseverance’ seemed to fit aptly in light of the coronavirus pandemic, even as that had not originally been the reason for its naming. Mars Mission 2020 had been launched in July last year, at a time when the entire team had to work remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic. NASA said that the team had to entirely rethink and redesign how it would control the mission that was in-flight when all members were not even in the same room.
Importance for India
The mission is an important step for the Mars exploration that several countries, including India, are currently undertaking. While India has only sent an orbiter so far, the missions that NASA undertakes on Mars form a solid foundation for any future missions that India might carry out in the future. The scientific community all over the world is attempting to understand whether life had once existed on Mars and this mission would also help in answering some of those questions and open doors for subsequent research by scientists worldwide.
Moreover, India is aiming to send a manned mission to space by 2022, and the next logical step would be to send humans either to the Moon or on interplanetary missions. As of now, no manned mission has been sent to Mars, and so, it is something that is likely included in the medium- to long-term aim of all space agencies. If Perseverance is able to conduct its science experiments, the understanding of Mars would deepen among scientists, making all space agencies more equipped to carry out future manned missions to Mars.
The mission is also a technical example for India, which is attempting to send a lander to a difficult terrain in the South Pole of the Moon. While the first attempt of India to do so had failed when Vikram Lander crash landed on the Moon, ISRO is aiming to send a second lander later this year. Like Mars did with Perseverance and Jezero, India could adopt technical innovations like the Terrain-Relative Navigation for the mission.
The seven minutes of terror are over for the Perseverance team, especially those focussing specifically on Entry, Descent and Landing or EDL, but the mission has just begun and NASA is most excited for what Perseverance can possibly reveal about the Red Planet.