Nasa’s Perseverance rover has survived “seven minutes of terror” that saw it hurtle down towards the surface of Mars and land gracefully on the ground.
Now that it has landed, the rover – and a helicopter named Ingenuity that will undertake the first ever flight on another planet – will get to work exploring Mars in search of clues about its ancient past. That will include attempting to understand whether the planet was ever habitable, and scouring for clues of past life on its surface.
The arrival on Mars brought an end to a journey of months and 300 million miles. It finished off a perilous entry, descent and landing process that saw it hurtle through the atmosphere, slow down to a safe speed, and then use a highly-advanced “Terrain Relative Navigation” system that will allow it to adjust where it lands to ensure it can safely drop down onto the surface.
Hello and welcome...
to The Independent’s live coverage of the landing of Perseverance on Mars – and the all important “seven minutes of terror” that the rover must endure before it touches down on the red planet.
UK has a connection to Mars mission
Aside from the obvious fact that going to Mars is likely to benefit everyone, the UK does haev a little more of a connection to the mission, which is backed by the government.
Here’s some more detail from the Press Assocation’s Nina Massey about UK scientists’ and engineers’ role in everything that’s happening today and in the years to come:
Nasa‘s Mars Perseverance rover will land on the red planet on Thursday to begin its search for traces of life.
The mission, backed by the UK Government, is to explore and collect samples for future return to Earth from diverse ancient environments on Mars.
The rover - a scientific laboratory the size of a car - is due to land on the red planet at around 8.43pm on Thursday.
The research destination is Jezero crater, a 28-mile-wide depression containing sediments of an ancient river delta.
Researchers suggest that evidence of past life could be preserved here.
Perseverance will gather rock and soil samples using its drill, and will store the sample cores in tubes on the Martian surface ready for a return mission to bring around 30 samples to Earth in the early 2030s.
- Professor Sanjeev Gupta from Imperial College London will help Nasa oversee mission operations from a science and engineering point of view.
- Professor Mark Sephton, also from Imperial College London, will help to identify samples that could contain evidence of past life.
- Professor Caroline Smith, from the Natural History Museum, will study the mineralogy and geochemistry of the rocks found in Jezero crater.
- Dr Keyron Hickman-Lewis, also from the Natural History Museum, will study the environments reflected by sedimentary rocks exposed in the crater and the potential for the preservation of ancient microbial life.
The researchers are supported by more than £400,000 in funds from the UK Space Agency (UKSA).
Sue Horne, head of space exploration at the UKSA, said: “It is great to see a strong representation of UK scientists and engineers involved in the Perseverance mission.
“Over the next few years, our scientists will play a leading role in this international endeavour, from managing logistical operations to deciding which samples are to be returned to Earth.
“Perseverance will bring us one step closer to answering the question that’s been on the lips of Bowie fans and scientists for the last 40 years.”
The rover’s instruments will analyse scientifically interesting samples at the Martian surface.
Selected samples will be collected by drilling down to several centimetres and then sealed in sample tubes and stored on the rover.
When the rover reaches a suitable location, a cache of tubes will be dropped on the surface of Mars to be collected by the Sample Fetch Rover, being developed by Airbus in Stevenage, which will take them to the Nasa Mars Ascent vehicle.
LAX turns red ahead of Perseverance landing
Nasa had invited people to turn their lights red to mark the arrival of Perseverance on Mars – and Los Angeles’s airport has done so, with big red columns to commemorate the big day.
(The mission is managed from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Southern California, making it something of a local.)
11 million people will be landing with Perseverance
Before Perseverance set off from Earth, last year, Nasa invited people to get involved with its “Send Your Name To Mars” campaign. The people who did – 10,932,295 in all – had their names stenciled by an electron beam onto three silicon chips the size of a fingernail, which were then placed on the rover ready to be carried off to Mars.
Those same chips also have the essays of the 155 finalists in Nasa’s “Name The Rover” competition, which eventually picked the name Perseverance.
The success of the campaign meant that Nasa opened it up again, even though it’s now clearly too late to sign up. People can join the campaign on Nasa’s website, ahead of future missions.
Only lucky probes have made it to the surface intact
Mars is not easy.
If proof is needed, it can be found in the many failed missions that have gone before Perseverance.
More probes have actually been destroyed trying to get onto the red planet than have made the journey successfully. 19 spacecraft have attempted to land there – but only eight have made it, all of them American.
Nasa’s engineers half-jokingly refer to the descent as “seven minutes of terror” – but the name is not all that hyperbolic. Anything that aims to make it to the Martian surface has to negotiate with a difficult landing.
Here, from the Press Association’s Nilima Marshall, is a rundown of those lucky Martian visitors who made it through the journey.
1. Viking 1 (lander) - 1976
The first successful landing on Mars came in July 1976, when Nasa‘s Viking 1 touched down on Chryse Planitia (The Plains of Gold).
This lander was part of the space agency’s Viking programme, which consisted of another spacecraft, Viking 2.
As well as taking photographs and collecting science data on the Martian surface, Viking 1 also carried out three biology experiments designed to look for possible signs of life.
According to Nasa, these experiments discovered unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the Martian soil, but provided no clear evidence for the presence of living micro-organisms in soil near the landing sites.
Viking 1 held the record for the longest Mars surface mission, continuing its work for more than six years until it was broken by the Opportunity rover in 2010.
2. Viking 2 (lander) - 1976
Hot on the heels of Viking 1’s success, Nasa landed on Mars again in September 1976 with Viking 2.
The sister ship touched down on the plains of Utopia Planitia, where it took photos and - like its predecessor - found sterile soil that did not show clear evidence of microbial life.
The lander shut down in 1980 after its batteries failed.
3. Pathfinder (lander) - 1997
Pathfinder landed on Mars’s Ares Vallis in July 1997, carrying a six-wheeled robotic rover named Sojourner.
It was the first successful lander since the two Vikings touched down in 1976.
Pathfinder’s mission was to prove that the development of “faster, better and cheaper” spacecraft was possible and that it was also viable to send lots of scientific instruments to another planet with a simple system.
Sojourner was the first wheeled vehicle to be used on any planet.
The pair collected data on Mars’s geological, soil, magnetic and atmospheric properties.
Nasa‘s final contact with Pathfinder was in September 1997 and, in 2003, Sojourner was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame.
4. Spirit (rover) - 2004
This robotic space explorer landed within the impact crater Gusev on Mars in January 2004 as part of Nasa‘s Mars Exploration Rover mission.
Along with its twin, the Opportunity rover, Spirit’s key role was to study the history of climate and water at areas on the red planet where conditions may once have been favourable to life.
The spacecraft continued working for more than six years - far beyond its initial 90-day mission - and stopped communicating with Nasa in 2011 following a global dust storm on Mars.
5. Opportunity (rover) - 2004
Opportunity landed on the other side of Mars - on the flat plains of Meridiani Planum - nearly three weeks after its twin.
It was the first rover to identify and characterise sedimentary rocks on a planet other than Earth.
Opportunity discovered small spheres of a compound known as hematite (nicknamed blueberries), and found white veins of the mineral gypsum at the Endeavour crater - a tell-tale sign of water that once travelled through underground fractures.
Opportunity worked longer on the surface of Mars than any other robot - more than 14 years. It ceased communications in 2018 following a planetary dust storm.
Both Spirit and Opportunity took thousands of pictures of Mars, returning more than 342,000 raw images.
6. Phoenix (lander) - 2008
A robotic spacecraft, Phoenix touched down in May 2008 research the history of water on Mars.
The lander dug, scooped, baked, sniffed and tasted the Red Planet’s soil, according to Nasa.
It verified the presence of water-ice in the Martian subsurface, which Nasa‘s Mars Odyssey orbiter first detected remotely in 2002.
The mission lasted about seven months - its solar power dropped upon the arrival of the Martian winter.
7. Curiosity (rover) - 2012
This car-sized rover was designed to explore the red planet’s Gale crater as part of Nasa‘s Mars Science Laboratory mission.
Even though it landed nearly nine years ago, the mission still remains active.
Curiosity has a wide range of achievements under its belt - including finding evidence of persistent liquid water in the past; measuring methane at the surface; and detecting sulphur, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon, which are key ingredients necessary for life.
The rover’s design - and some of its instruments - have been adapted for the Perseverance mission.
8. InSight (lander) - 2018
This Nasa spacecraft landed in November 2018 and is the only active lander in operation on the red planet (excluding the Curiosity rover).
Its aim was to shine new light on how Mars was formed and its deep structure, by mapping its core, crust and mantle.
The mission has measured numerous marsquakes and continues to gather data to better understand the formation of Mars and other rocky planets.
The seven minutes of terror – minute by minute
The “seven minutes of terror” begins when the Perseverance rover detaches from the cruise stage that has carried it all the way from Earth, and begins travelling down to the Martian surface on its own. It ends when it touches down on the red planet, being lowered down by straps.
In between will come those terrifying minutes during which mission controllers have to hope that the automated systems do their job and ensure the rover’s safe arrival.
Nasa has published a detailed schedule of that process, and how it will happen minute-by-minute.
The times below are eastern standard time, so add five hours to get to UK time. They also actually happen 11 minutes and 22 seconds earlier than the time given below: it takes that long for the signals to get from the red planet to Earth, so the times refer to when mission controllers will receive the message that they have happened.
Here, from Nasa, is everything that should happen today:
– Cruise stage separation: The part of the spacecraft that has been flying Perseverance – with NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attached to its belly – through space for the last six-and-a-half months will separate from the entry capsule at about 3:38 p.m. EST.
– Atmospheric entry: The spacecraft is expected to hit the top of the Martian atmosphere traveling at about 12,100 mph (19,500 kph) at 3:48 p.m. EST.
– Peak heating: Friction from the atmosphere will heat up the bottom of the spacecraft to temperatures as high as about 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,300 degrees Celsius) at 3:49 p.m. EST .
– Parachute deployment: The spacecraft will deploy its parachute at supersonic speed at around 3:52 p.m. EST (12:52 p.m. PST). The exact deployment time is based on the new Range Trigger technology, which improves the precision of the spacecraft’s ability to hit a landing target.
– Heat shield separation: The protective bottom of the entry capsule will detach about 20 seconds after the parachute deployment. This allows the rover to use a radar to determine how far it is from the ground and employ its Terrain-Relative Navigation technology to find a safe landing site.
– Back shell separation: The back half of the entry capsule that is fastened to the parachute will separate from the rover and its “jetpack” (known as the descent stage) at 3:54 p.m. EST. The jetpack will use retrorockets to slow down and fly to the landing site.
– Touchdown: The spacecraft’s descent stage, using the sky crane maneuver, will lower the rover down to the surface on nylon tethers. The rover is expected to touch down on the surface of Mars at human walking speed (about 1.7 mph, or 2.7 kph) at around 3:55 p.m. EST.
The first ever audible Mars landing
The Perseverance mission has more equipment for keeping us in the loop than any lander before: it has 19 cameras on the rover, and four on the other parts of the spacecraft that will get it to the surface, meaning it has more of them than any other interplanetary mission. Nasa will be sharing images on its website as they come back from the red planet.
But perhaps more pioneering will be the sound: it will be the first time that the public will be able to hear the sounds of the landing, through a microphone that is attached to the side of the rover. There is also another microphone on the SuperCam camera, which will allow it to listen ot the wind as well as try and hear the properties of rocks it is looking at.
Here’s a picture of the top of the remote sending mast on the rover, which includes the SuperCam – the lens is inside the big circle. It also has other cameras, including the two that look a little like round eyes, which are used for navigation.
Thi picture was taken at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California in July 2019.
Landing commemorated on mountainside
Nasa science leader Thomas Zurbuchen has shared another of the ways that the landing is being commemorated: with a vast light display on Swiss mountains.
How to watch live
The Perseverance rover is prepared for a journey down to Mars that will either end with it as its most advanced visitor ever, or its latest piece of destroyed technology. (Nasa tweets on behalf of its landers in the first person, which can leave you feeling a little emotional...)
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