Hello Mars! Here we come again! NASA's Perseverance rover is set to arrive on the Red Planet on Feb. 18 around 2:30 p.m. Central Time. As I write this on Feb. 3, the spacecraft hurtles along at 48,846 miles an hour (78,610 kph) just 2.1 million miles (3.4 million km) from its target. Once it reaches the top of the Red Planet’s atmosphere, a carefully choreographed but harrowing seven minutes of descent awaits. Click the video to watch how will all go down.
Friction with the thin Martian air will briefly raise the temperature of the protective heat shield to around 10,000° F. A supersonic parachute inflation will follow to slow the spacecraft down before it releases a rocket-powered descent stage that carries the rover. Once the stage arrives at the landing site it will lower the rover using cables called a sky crane to the surface and then depart. Whew!
“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. Perseverance will join the Curiosity rover which has been studying water-rich locales in Gale Crater since August 2012. Check out the raw images its sends back nearly every day.
Tipping the scale at 2,260 pounds (1,025 kg) — but just 852 pounds on Mars — the rover will look for signs of ancient bacterial life and collect samples in tubes that will eventually be returned to Earth. Jezero Crater looks like a windswept dust bowl now, but several billion year ago it was home to a lake and active river delta, ideal places to hunt for fossils if they exist.
The mission also carries instruments focused on future Mars exploration including MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), a car-battery-size device in the rover’s chassis, that will demonstrate the feasibility of converting carbon dioxide into oxygen that future astronauts could use to breathe as well as produce rocket fuel.
Perseverance has the coolest tech toy of all — the Mars Ingenuity helicopter, that will survey the landing region and provide spectacular aerial views of the terrain.
And don't forget — the rover will be listening to Mars, too. It's rigged with two microphones, one that will record the sounds of landing and another other to capture the Martian wind, sounds from the rover and even the staccato pop when the probe's laser hits and vaporizes tiny samples of rock to determine their composition.
So much fun! Just what we need in mid-February when winter begins to wear.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.