NASA prepares for Seven Minutes of Terror; UAE and China also enroute to Mars

This illustration shows the events that occur in the final minutes of the nearly seven-month journey that NASA’s Perseverance rover has taken to Mars. Hundreds of critical events must execute perfectly and exactly on time for the rover to land on Mars safely on Feb. 18, 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The “Seven Minutes of Terror” is approaching fast for NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission with a touchdown on the surface of the Red Planet at Jezero crater slated of occur in just under weeks on February 18. The groundbreaking astrobiology mission will continue the search for evidence of past or present life on Mars.

The Mars 2020 spacecraft was less than 25.6 million miles (41.2 million kilometers) away as of Jan. 27, having traveled 292.5 million miles (470.8 million kilometers) during the seven-month interplanetary journey. By the time Perseverance reaches Mars, the rover will have already traveled 314 million miles (505 million kilometers).

NASA Television and the agency’s website will carry live coverage of the landing event from JPL beginning at 11:15 a.m. PST (2:15 p.m. EST). You can follow the Mars 2020 mission flight path here.

Launched last July, NASA’s latest Mars rover will not be the only spacecraft mission from Earth arriving at the planet this month.

The Hope Probe, developed by the United Arab Emirates, is expected to enter orbit around Mars on February 9. The UAE Space Agency also will be sharing live coverage of the Emirates Mars Mission on the agency’s website beginning at 10:30 a.m. ET on Feb. 9.

A mere one day later, the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) is expected to bring its Tianwen-1 spacecraft into orbit around the Red Planet. China’s mission includes an orbiter, lander, and rover, the first time such a triple-threat mission has been attempted. The lander and rover are slated to descend to the surface in May. If successful, the CNSA will be only the third space agency to get a lander safely onto the surface of Mars.

Artist’s concept of the Jezero Crater landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The SUV-sized rover is approaching at 1.6 miles per second (2.5 kilometers per second) on a do or die mission to perform a soft landing at the Jezero Crater and search for signs of life on the Red Planet. Perseverance is humanity’s most sophisticated rover ever launched and the mission includes the daring Ingenuity Mars Helicopter which will attempt the first-ever powered flight on another planet.

Furthermore, it definitively starts the holy grail goal of a Mars Sample Return – sought after by scientists for decades – to retrieve Martian soil samples and bring them back to Earth for the best possible analysis – to help determine if life ever existed past or present.

Before all that can happen though, Perseverance and Ingenuity, must survive the entry and descent to the surface of Mars, a complicated series of events that has been deemed the “Seven Minutes of Terror” by NASA officials.

“Once at the top of the Red Planet’s atmosphere, an action-packed seven minutes of descent awaits – complete with temperatures equivalent to the surface of the Sun, a supersonic parachute inflation, and the first ever autonomous guided landing on Mars,” says NASA.

“Only then can the rover – the biggest, heaviest, cleanest, and most sophisticated six-wheeled robotic geologist ever launched into space – search Jezero Crater for signs of ancient life and collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth.”

Watch the exciting mission trailer here:

Scientists selected Jezero Crater as the landing site because they believe it is the perfect place to search for signs of ancient microbial life. Billions of years ago, the now-bone-dry 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) basin was home to an actively-forming river delta and lake filled with water.

“The rock and regolith (broken rock and dust) that Perseverance’s Sample Caching System collects from Jezero could help answer fundamental questions about the existence of life beyond Earth.”

Composed of multiple precisely aligned images from the Context Camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, this annotated mosaic depicts a possible route the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover could take across Jezero Crater as it investigates several ancient environments that may have once been habitable. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance is the first leg in a multi-mission astrobiology joint venture with the European Space Agency (ESA) to return the first pristine Martian surface samples back to Earth as soon as 2031.

“Two future missions currently in the planning stages by NASA, in collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency), will work together to bring the samples back to Earth, where they will undergo in-depth analysis by scientists around the world using equipment far too large and complex to send to the Red Planet.”

“NASA has been exploring Mars since Mariner 4 performed a flyby in July of 1965, with two more flybys, seven successful orbiters, and eight landers since then,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, at a Jan. 27 media briefing.

“Perseverance, which was built from the collective knowledge gleaned from such trailblazers, has the opportunity to not only expand our knowledge of the Red Planet, but to investigate one of the most important and exciting questions of humanity about the origin of life both on Earth and also on other planets.” 

Alexander Mather, who named the Perseverance rover, and Vaneeza Rupani, who named the Ingenuity helicopter, stand next to Full Scale High Fidelity mockup replicas of both vehicles while on display at the Kennedy Space Center shortly before the launch of the actual robotic explorers. Credit: Ken Kremer

Perseverance will spend at least one Mars year (approx. two Earth years) exploring the landing site region.

The rover is a robotic scientist weighing about 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms). The rover is equipped with a 7-foot robotic arm with a 99-pound (45-kilogram) turret at the end as well as six advanced aluminum wheels on a rocker-bogie system. The SUV-sized rover dimensions are 10 feet (3 m) long, 9 feet (2.7 m) wide, and 7 feet (2.2 m) tall.

The rover is equipped with seven different scientific instruments and the mission includes 25 cameras – the most ever to Mars and deep space. The rover itself is equipped with 19 cameras.

The science payload has a mass of 130 pounds (59 kilograms) for seven instruments: Mastcam-Z, Mars Environmental  Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), Planetary  Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX),  Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) and  SuperCam.

In this artist’s concept, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet’s surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The solar-powered Ingenuity helicopter is a technology demonstration experiment aimed at attempting the first flight on Mars.

It is stowed on the belly and receives its charge from the rover’s power supply. The four-legged Ingenuity has a mass of about 4.0 pounds (1.8  kilograms) and stands 1.6 feet or 19 inches (0.49 meters) high. It is equipped with two counter-rotating blades for lift spinning at about 2,400 rpm and two cameras.

After Ingenuity is deployed on Mars’ surface its batteries will be charged solely by the helicopter’s own solar panel. If Ingenuity survives the cold Martian nights during its preflight checkout, the team will proceed with testing.

Learn more about the Perseverance rover by reading our exclusive Mars 2020 Exploration Mission Guide.

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