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This illustration made available by NASA depicts the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars after launching from the Perseverance rover, background left.

The Associated Press

According to veterans of NASA’s Mars program, landing on the Red Planet never gets less scary. It only gets more complicated.

That rule certainly holds for the space agency’s latest emissary to Mars, a robotic rover named Perseverance that is about the size of a small SUV. Perseverance is the most capable and autonomous spacecraft ever sent to roam the surface of another world. But when it arrives at Jezero crater at 3:55 p.m. ET on Thursday, it will be doing so in a location that is far more hazardous than any of its predecessors had to contend with.

“Jezero is actually a site that was scientifically interesting to many previous missions and we just couldn’t get there until this point, when our technology was ready to support it,” said deputy project manager Matt Wallace during a news briefing on Wednesday.

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Mars mission set to advance search for life beyond Earth

What makes Jezero so attractive to scientists is an ancient river delta whose steep edge towers some 60 metres above the crater floor. Perseverance will attempt to set its wheels down near to that cliff face, where the plan is that it will investigate exposed layers of rock and read the geological history of the site. Over the next two years it will also gather samples that a future mission can pick up and return to Earth in hopes of revealing whether any Martian microbes lived there when the delta formed more than 3.5 billion years ago.

But before that can happen, the spacecraft has to endure its “seven minutes of terror.” The phrase is one that NASA engineers have been using for years to describe the action-packed sequence of events that will, if all goes well, see the rover go from being a high-speed projectile aimed straight at Mars to a working piece of machinery at rest on the planet’s surface – all in less time than it takes to listen to The Beatles’ Hey Jude.

During that interval there is plenty of room for things to go terribly wrong.

For starters, the capsule that carries the rover must survive a peak temperature of about 1,300 C as it rips through the thin Martian atmosphere with an incoming velocity close to 20,000 kilometres an hour. Three minutes later, the capsule will release a supersonic parachute that will have to withstand up to 60,000 pounds of force as it attempts to slow the spacecraft down to less than 600 km/h.

“The parachute has to work,” said Erisa Stilley, a landing systems engineer with the mission. “If it doesn’t, it’s not going to be a very good day for any of us.”

Next, the heat shield must separate, exposing the rover that is stowed behind it. At this point the rover’s radar system is programmed to turn on and try to lock onto the surface just two minutes from touchdown.

All of this should bring Perseverance somewhere within an oval-shaped region called the landing ellipse, which measures 7.7 kilometres long. It includes boulders, small craters, dunes and several kilometres of cliff face that mark the boundary of the delta.

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“We’re aiming right at the edge of that delta, and that’s not an accident,” said Allen Chen, who leads the mission’s entry, descent and landing team.

A NEW EXPLOERER ON MARS

NASA’s Perseverance rover is set to land at

3:55 p.m. ET on Thursday. The rover is the

most sophisticated robotic explorer ever sent

to Mars. It will search for signs of past life

and collect samples for return to Earth at a

later date.

THE JOURNEY

Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020,

and it has been cruising through interplane-

tary space since then. At its current distance

it will take 11 minutes and 22 seconds for

radio signals from the spacecraft to reach

Earth.

Mars at arrival

Flight

trajectory

1.335 AU

1.567 AU

Earth at

arrival

1 AU*

The sun

Earth at

launch

Mars at

launch

*The astronomical unit (AU), a measure of distance, is approximately the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, about 149.6 million km.

THE LANDING

Because of the signal delay between Earth and

Mars, Perseverance is designed to guide itself

safely down to the surface with an automated

navigation system

TERRAIN-RELATIVE

NAVIGATION

1

Camera takes pictures as rover descends

2

Computer compares these to maps of area and adjusts flightpath to avoid hazards

3

Lander lowers rover as close as possible to target site

THE DESTINATION

Jezero Crater was once a deep lake and is

thought to be an ideal location to search for

signs of past life. Perseverance will touch down

somewhere within a 7.7 km long “landing

ellipse” that encompasses part of an ancient

river delta near the crater rim.

JEZERO

CRATER

45km

THE ROVER

Perseverance is outfitted with a suite of cameras

and other instruments. It can drill into Martian

rock and cache the core samples for later collec

tion by a follow-up mission.

INGENUITY

Drone-like helicopter carried on rovers

belly will demonstrate first powered flight

on another planet

THE LEGACY

More than 30 spacecraft have been sent to

Mars already, starting with the first attempt by

the Soviet Union in 1962. Several have imaged

the planet from space but so far only eight

spacecraft have landed successfully on the

surface. Perseverance is now aiming to

become No. 9. China's Tianwen-1,

which went into orbit around Mars on Feb.

10, will attempt a landing later this spring.​

Probe type and duration active on the surface:

Lander

Rover

Hybrid mission

Tianwen-1

Perseverance

InSight (active)

Curiosity (active)

Phoenix

Opportunity

Spirit

Pathfinder/Sojourner

Viking 2

Viking 1

1980

1990

2000

2010

2020

THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: NASA; GRAPHIC NEWS

A NEW EXPLOERER ON MARS

NASA’s Perseverance rover is set to land at 3:55 p.m.

ET on Thursday. The rover is the most sophisticated

robotic explorer ever sent to Mars. It will search for

signs of past life and collect samples for return to

Earth at a later date.

THE JOURNEY

Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020, and it

has been cruising through interplanetary space since

then. At its current distance it will take 11 minutes and

22 seconds for radio signals from the spacecraft to

reach Earth.

Mars at arrival

Flight

trajectory

1.335 AU

1.567 AU

Earth at

arrival

1 AU*

The sun

Earth at

launch

Mars at

launch

*The astronomical unit (AU), a measure of distance, is approximately the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, about 149.6 million km.

THE LANDING

Because of the signal delay between Earth and Mars,

Perseverance is designed to guide itself safely down

to the surface with an automated navigation system.

TERRAIN-RELATIVE

NAVIGATION

1

Camera takes pictures as rover descends

2

Computer compares these to maps of area and adjusts flightpath to avoid hazards

3

Lander lowers rover as close as possible to target site

THE DESTINATION

Jezero Crater was once a deep lake and is thought to

be an ideal location to search for signs of past life.

Perseverance will touch down somewhere within a 7.7

km long “landing ellipse” that encompasses part of an

ancient river delta near the crater rim.

JEZERO

CRATER

45km

THE ROVER

Perseverance is outfitted with a suite of cameras

and other instruments. It can drill into Martian

rock and cache the core samples for later collec

tion by a follow-up mission.

INGENUITY

Drone-like helicopter carried on rovers belly will demonstrate first powered flight on another planet

THE LEGACY

More than 30 spacecraft have been sent to Mars

already, starting with the first attempt by the Soviet

Union in 1962. Several have imaged the planet from

space but so far only eight spacecraft have landed

successfully on the surface. Perseverance is now aiming

to become No. 9. China's Tianwen-1, which

went into orbit around Mars on Feb. 10, will

attempt a landing later this spring.​

Probe type and duration active on the surface:

Lander

Rover

Hybrid mission

Tianwen-1

Perseverance

InSight (active)

Curiosity (active)

Phoenix

Opportunity

Pathfinder/Sojourner

Viking 2

Viking 1

1975

1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

2020

THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: NASA; GRAPHIC NEWS

A NEW EXPLOERER ON MARS

NASA’s Perseverance rover is set to land at 3:55 p.m. ET on Thursday. The rover is the

most sophisticated robotic explorer ever sent to Mars. It will search for signs of past

life and collect samples for return to Earth at a later date.

THE JOURNEY

Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020, and it has been cruising through interplanetary

space since then. At its current distance it will take 11 minutes and 22 seconds for radio signals

from the spacecraft to reach Earth.

Mars at arrival

Flight

trajectory

1.335 AU

1.567 AU

Earth at

arrival

1 AU*

The sun

Earth at

launch

Mars at

launch

*The astronomical unit (AU), a measure of distance, is approximately the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, about 149.6 million km.

THE LANDING

Because of the signal delay between Earth and Mars, Perseverance is designed to

guide itself safely down to the surface with an automated navigation system.

TERRAIN-RELATIVE

NAVIGATION

1

Camera takes pictures as rover descends

2

Computer compares these to maps of area and adjusts flightpath to avoid hazards

3

Lander lowers rover as close as possible to target site

THE DESTINATION

Jezero Crater was once a deep lake and is thought to be an ideal location to search for signs of

past life. Perseverance will touch down somewhere within a 7.7 km long “landing ellipse” that

encompasses part of an ancient river delta near the crater rim.

Possible rover path

Search Spots

River canyon

Carved by water which

flowed into the crater

over 3.5 billion years ago

JEZERO

CRATER

45km

Landing Ellipse (approximate)

DELTA

Crater rim

Preferred

landing site

Shoreline of

former lake

Edge of delta

Ancient lake bed

THE ROVER

Perseverance is outfitted with a suite of cameras and other instruments. It can drill into Martian

rock and cache the core samples for later collection by a follow-up mission.

POWER SUPPLY

Relies on the decay of radioactive plutonium to generate electricity

SUPERCAM

Can fire a laser to illuminate rocks and study mineral composition from several metres

SHERLOC

Ultraviolet spectrometer searches for organics and minerals

RIMFAX

Ground-penetrating radar to map geology beneath surface

MASTCAM-Z

Advanced camera

MEDA

Weather station

PIXL

X-ray spectrometer to identify chemical elements

MOXIE

Experiment to demonstrate how astronauts might produce oxygen from Martian CO2 for breathing and fuel

INGENUITY

Drone-like helicopter carried on rovers belly will demonstrate first powered flight on another planet

THE LEGACY

More than 30 spacecraft have been sent to Mars already, starting with the first attempt by the Soviet

Union in 1962. Several have imaged the planet from space but so far only eight spacecraft have landed

successfully on the surface. Perseverance is now aiming to become No. 9. China’s Tianwen-1,

which went into orbit around Mars on Feb. 10, will attempt a landing later this spring.​

Probe type and duration active on the surface:

Lander

Rover

Hybrid mission

Tianwen-1

Perseverance

InSight (active)

Curiosity (active)

Phoenix

Opportunity

Spirit

Pathfinder/Sojourner

Viking 2

Viking 1

1975

1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

2020

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NASA; GRAPHIC NEWS

Based on orbital images, there is a relatively smooth but narrow area adjacent to the cliff where mission engineers want the rover to set itself down. Such a small target near such an obvious hazard would have been too dangerous for earlier missions to contemplate. But Perseverance comes equipped with a guidance system known as terrain relative navigation, once developed for cruise missiles, that it will used to steer itself toward its landing site – or choose an alternate, if it senses something wrong.

The system calls for the rover to rapidly take photos of the landscape as it speeds downward. A special onboard computer system – the fastest ever sent on an interplanetary mission – will then quickly compare the images to a detailed map of the region that it carries within its memory. This will allow Perseverance to determine precisely where it is above the surface and then use its rockets to direct itself to where it thinks it’s best to land. During the final minute, the parachute will separate and a rocket-powered carriage will hover above the surface, lowering the rover down the final 20 metres or so on a crane.

Along the way, a total of 158 pyrotechnic devices have to fire in a precisely timed sequence to ensure everything that needs to release or be deployed happens at the right moment.

“It’s crazy to imagine that we can do such things,” said Jim Bell, who is part of the rover’s science team. “But that’s what has allowed us to pinpoint this tiny little place to go on the planet with one of the most interesting geologic stories that we could try to go uncover.”

Dr. Bell said he will be watching along with the rest of his team as the rover heads down and tries to become the ninth spacecraft to land successfully on Mars. If it works, dozens of scientists who will be sharing the experience together online will have a moment to collectively exhale. And then their adventure at Jezero can begin.

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