NASA to Land Historic Perseverance Rover on Mars This Week

February 17, 2021 by Sara Wilkerson
Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA will be making its most precise and technologically complex landing yet when its Perseverance rover lands on Mars later on this week. The landing will be the space agency’s fifth rover mission on Mars. 

“Perseverance is NASA’s most ambitious Mars rover mission yet, focused scientifically on finding out whether there was ever any life on Mars in the past,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. 

“To answer this question, the landing team will have its hands full getting us to Jezero Crater – the most challenging Martian terrain ever targeted for a landing,” stated Zurbuchen. 

The Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide fossilized lake system that existed more than 3.6 billion years ago, is believed to have remnants of ancient organic molecules that could point to signs of potential microbial life from the water and sediment rocks that flowed into the crater billions of years ago. 

While on the Jezero Crater, the Perseverance rover, as part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, will not only search for signs of past microbial life, but will also be taking rock samples from Mars’s surface. 

According to NASA, rock samples collected from the rover will be deposited into metal sample tubes and left on Mars for future missions to collect and study. 

In a news conference held on Tuesday, Dr. Ken Williford, the Perseverance deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, elaborated further on the rock samples in response to a question from the media. 

“So we have 43 sample tubes on board… we hope to collect around 40 samples. But the idea is that 30 samples could be returned. 

“Those returned missions are not final yet… but that’s the capability that NASA’s looking at right now,” stated Williford. 

While the prospects of finding signs of past extraterrestrial life is exciting, NASA’s landing on the Jezero Crater will prove to be challenging due to the terrain’s geography of steep cliffs, sand dunes and general rocky landscapes. 

“The Mars community has long coveted the scientific value of sites such as Jezero Crater, and a previous mission contemplated going there, but the challenges with safely landing were considered prohibitive,” said Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020 at NASA’s JPL. 

“But what was once out of reach is now conceivable,” continued Farley, “thanks to the 2020 engineering team and advances in Mars entry, descent and landing technologies.” 

In an effort to make sure that Perseverance lands as smoothly as possible on Mars, scientists developed a multi-staged entry, descent and landing, or EDL, plan

Upon entry into the red planet’s atmosphere, the spacecraft housing Perseverance will be traveling at speeds of over 12,000 miles per hour. According to NASA, it will take seven minutes for the rover to reach Mars’s surface. 

During these seven minutes, the rover’s spacecraft is expected to choreograph a series of successful maneuvers that will essentially “slam on the brakes” for the rover’s safe touchdown on the planet’s surface. 

The landing itself will be no easy feat for NASA since scientists will not be able to manually control the process themselves, rather the rover will be landing autonomously. 

Not only will scientists not be able to have control over the landing, the radio signal of the rover itself will be delayed due to the 293 million miles of distance between the Earth and Mars. 

“During the landing, it takes more than 11 minutes to get a radio signal back from Mars, so by the time the mission team hears that the spacecraft has entered the atmosphere, in reality, the rover is already on the ground,” explains NASA. 

“The Perseverance team is putting the final touches on the complex choreography required to land in Jezero Crater,” said Jennifer Trosper, deputy project manager for the mission at JPL. “No Mars landing is guaranteed, but we have been preparing a decade to put this rover’s wheels down on the surface of Mars and get to work.” 

The Perseverance Rover is expected to be on the Red Planet on Thursday, February 18, at around 3:55 pm EST, with commentary coverage from NASA beginning at 2:15pm EST. 

To find out more about NASA’s rover mission, view NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory press kit

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