ReutersFeb 19, 2021 03:15:14 IST
By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – NASA’s robotic science rover Perseverance streaked into the thin atmosphere of Mars on Thursday to begin a daredevil seven-minute descent and attempted landing on an ancient lake bed where scientists plan to search for traces of fossilized microbial life.
Perseverance, the most advanced astrobiology laboratory ever flown to another world, was headed for a self-guided touchdown inside a vast and rocky basin called Jezero Crater at the edge of a former river delta etched into the Red Planet billions of years ago.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles hoped to receive confirmation of the landing, and possibly a first image from the rover, shortly after its arrival, set for 12:55 p.m. PST (2055 GMT). Those transmissions are due to be relayed to Earth from one of several satellites already in orbit around Mars.
The primary objective of Perseverance’s two-year, $2.7 billion endeavor is to search for signs of ancient microbes that may have flourished on Mars some 3 billion years ago.
Getting Perseverance to its destination in one piece after its 293-million-mile (472-million-km) voyage from Earth is riskiest part its flight.
Mission managers reported that the perilous descent phase had begun with receipt of a radio signal beamed from the multi-stage spacecraft as it pierced the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour (19,000 km per hour).
From that point, Perseverance must perfectly and swiftly execute a complex series of self-guided maneuvers to slow its descent, avoid myriad surface hazards and plant itself gently upright on all six wheels.
The sequence includes a supersonic parachute deployment and a rocket-powered “sky crane” designed to detach from the entry capsule, fly to a safe landing spot and lower the rover on tethers, before zipping off to crash a safe distance away.
The entire process was set to unfold in a heart-pounding interval NASA engineers referred to as the “seven minutes of terror.”
Because it takes radio waves 11 minutes to travel from Mars to Earth, the SUV-sized rover had already reached the Martian surface – intact or not – by the time its atmospheric entry signal arrived at mission control.
SEEKING MICROBIAL FOSSILS
NASA scientists describe Perseverance as the most ambitious of nearly 20 U.S. missions to Mars dating back to a 1965 Mariner fly-by.
Larger and packed with more instruments than the four Mars rovers preceding it, it would build on previous discoveries that the fourth planet from the sun was once warmer, wetter and possibly hospitable to life.
Scientists hope to find biosignatures embedded in samples of ancient sediments that Perseverance is designed to extract from Martian rock for future analysis back on Earth – the first such specimens ever to be collected by humankind from another planet.
Two subsequent Mars missions are planned to retrieve the samples and return them to NASA in the next decade.
Perseverance’s payload also includes demonstration projects that could help pave the way for eventual human exploration of Mars, including a device to convert the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into pure oxygen.
The box-shaped tool is the first built to extract a natural resource of direct use to humans from an extraterrestrial environment, according to Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division. It would prove invaluable for future human life support on Mars and for producing rocket propellant 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 (1.8-kg) helicopter could lead to low-altitude aerial surveillance of distant worlds, officials said.
Perseverance’s immediate predecessor, the rover Curiosity, landed in 2012 and remains in operation, as does the stationary lander InSight, which arrived in 2018 to study the deep interior of Mars.
Last week, separate probes launched by the United Arab Emirates and China reached Martian orbit. NASA has three Mars satellites still in orbit, along with two from the European Space Agency.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham)
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