Seven Minutes of Terror: First Mars rover since 2011 lands tomorrow

by Breanna Beers

Tomorrow, February 18, the Perseverance rover will complete its six-and-a-half-month journey to finally land on Martian soil. Within a few days, it will begin its twofold mission of searching for signs of past life on Mars and gathering information to support future human habitation.

The capsule is currently hurtling through Martian orbit 15 times faster than a bullet. To successfully touch down, the capsule will have to slow down enough to drop out of orbit and enter the Martian atmosphere. After surviving the heat of entry, the capsule will continue to slow itself using its thrusters to aim toward the landing site. Eventually, the delivery vehicle will separate from the capsule, carry Perseverance to its final destination and gently lower the rover to the ground on cables in a sequence called the skycrane maneuver.

The skycrane maneuver is necessary to prevent the delivery vehicle’s rockets from kicking up debris that could damage the rover, but it’s a delicate process vulnerable to wind and weather. As former NASA chemist Dr. Doug Miller pointed out, this maneuver has only been successfully executed once before, with the Curiosity rover landing nearly ten years ago.

The entry, descent and landing process takes only seven minutes and must be conducted completely autonomously, with no input from mission control. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Satellite communication between Mars and Earth takes more than 12 minutes, meaning that the precarious procedures for Perseverance’s entry, descent and landing will have to be completely autonomous. NASA has characterized the event as “seven minutes of terror,” as engineers who spent years meticulously designing and testing every piece of hardware wait in suspense to learn whether it survived the journey. There’s no fixing it once it’s in space.

The Perseverance rover landing ellipse is less than half the size of Curiosity’s, which itself dramatically shrank the ellipse of previous missions. This allows the rover to land in locations which previously would have been deemed too hazardous. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Only about half of all Mars landing attempts by any space agency are successful. Perseverance’s touchdown is all the more meaningful coming almost exactly one year after the Opportunity rover was pronounced dead on February 19, 2019 after 15 years of operation, long exceeding its planned 3-month mission.

The Perseverance mission is unique compared to the other three Mars rovers in several ways. First, its landing ellipse, the oval-shaped area within which touchdown could occur, is half the size of previous missions. Smaller ellipse size allows the rover to land in areas that would be too risky with a larger ellipse size, since it could include hazardous terrain for the precision machinery. 

Second, Perseverance carries entirely different scientific instruments than previous rovers, since the scientific objectives of this mission are also unique. The rover is landing in the Jezero Crater, the remains of what NASA believes was once a lake comparable to Lake Tahoe, to look for evidence of past life on the red planet.

NASA isn’t expecting to find the skeletons of little green men or the buried ruins of advanced civilizations. Instead, this mission builds on previous data that indicates a warmer climate, a protective magnetic field and even running water in Mars’ history, which could have supported microbial life. If there are signs of dead bacteria anywhere on Mars, the Jezero Crater is as good a place as any to look.

Perseverance has the equipment for the job: its radar system can sense geologic features underground, its lasers can zap rock to assess its composition, and its drill comes with a caching system that will allow the rover to store rock samples for a later mission to retrieve. These samples will be the first Martian rocks to be collected from the surface of the planet itself and returned to Earth; previous analyses have relied on meteorite samples believed to have originated on Mars.

Even so, the search for organic life may find nothing more than a few interesting rocks. But would that be so bad?

Even if the quest for organic matter comes up empty-handed, the search itself will still provide valuable information from which scientists can learn new things about the system, leading to more productive experiments in the future. And all the data from the Perseverance mission is ultimately building toward one of the greatest experiments ever: humans on Mars. 

Instruments like SHERLOC and PIXL will analyze the chemical composition of Martian resources, paving the way for future experiments on how these minerals could be used to support human life. The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, or MEDA, will measure temperature, wind, pressure, humidity and dust particulation, providing weather data that will be essential for future missions. The 23 cameras and two microphones on board will capture more stunning visuals than ever before. 

Perseverance isn’t just gathering information, though; it will also test exploratory technology. The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment, or MOXIE, will attempt to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide that makes up 96% of the Martian atmosphere. In addition to the obviously exciting potential life support application, this oxygen could also be a major asset in the short term by serving as fuel to launch missions from the surface. If propellant was readily available on Mars, it would reduce the fuel needed on future round-trip missions, including a human visit.

The rover is also bringing a friend along for the ride: the Ingenuity helicopter. The drone will autonomously attempt the first powered flight on a planet with an atmosphere 99% less dense than Earth’s. If it succeeds, Ingenuity will not only provide amazing drone footage of Mars and Perseverance, but serve as a proof of concept for future missions.

Rovers travel slowly, picking their way across hazardous terrain with extreme caution to avoid potential damage to their delicate scientific instruments. Aerial robots like Ingenuity can travel much faster, scouting ahead for potential obstacles and transporting resources between different locations. Future Martian colonies will almost certainly rely heavily on similar technology. 

Of course, colonization isn’t just a matter of “one small step for a man;” it’s more like a giant leap at least several decades into the future, especially considering that to date Mars remains untouched by even a human visitor. Ambitious goals for human missions to Mars have come and gone, with at least one proposed mission almost every year since 1997.

In fact, no astronauts have landed on extraorbital bodies since the last human on the moon in 1972. Improvements in robotics could arguably be considered to render further human exploration unnecessary, other than for the sheer triumph of proving it possible. That’s why the moon, once conquered, has remained undisturbed by human footprints for nearly 50 years.

“Placing humans on the Moon or Mars is a matter of money, technology and political will,” Miller said. “Lacking any one of those three will stop the effort.”

Those three factors are constantly in flux, but evidence points to big-picture change in the coming years. After the long drought of interest in space exploration following the end of the Cold War, the rise of private space industries and the creation of the Space Force signal a shift in the balance. Space is no longer the final frontier; it’s just the next one. The first person to set foot on Mars is almost certainly alive right now, watching the launch of Perseverance as one small step along the way.

Breanna Beers is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Editor-in-Chief of Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and citrus tea.

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