In a few hours, a robotic probe carrying the largest and most expensive extraterrestrial exploration vehicle ever built is going to try to land in a crater in the northern hemisphere of Mars to make history. The main objective of the mission is to search for traces of life.
If this trip had happened 3.5 billion years ago, the Perseverance it would be about to land in the middle of a lake fed by a river that carries sediment, since this is what the Jezero crater – about 45 kilometers in diameter – is thought to be at that time, when Mars was a blue planet like Earth. It is known that in this frozen twin of our planet the basic conditions for life to emerge were given and it was just at that time when the first microbes began to emerge on our planet, probably in lakes, rivers or seas.
But millions of years ago the planet began to lose its atmosphere, broke its equilibrium and took a mortal turn until it became the frozen desert that it is today. The Perseverance It is a six-wheeled, one-ton car equipped with seven scientific instruments with which to try to analyze the atomic and chemical composition of the bottom of the now-disappeared lake in search of unmistakable traces of Martian microbes.
“Perseverance [perseverancia en inglés] It is the most ambitious Martian exploration vehicle that NASA has ever launched, “explained Thomas Zurbuchen, chief of science at the US space agency. Perseverance it is “the most complicated one that has been tried to land to date”, the scientist highlighted.
NASA has always liked to force the drama of landing any type of spacecraft on Mars. Since the beginning of space exploration in the 1950s, one out of every two missions to the red planet has failed. But the US has a history of success that is unmatched in the world: it has successfully landed four mobile rovers on Mars. Perseverance it will be the heaviest, one ton, complex and expensive: about 2,200 million euros.
The most exciting thing will be the “seven minutes of terror” before landing
The decisive part of the landing will take place today around ten o’clock at night, peninsular time. Everything will begin with the entry of the spacecraft into the thin atmosphere of Mars, which is 100 times less dense than that of Earth. This means that the friction of the air slows down much less the breakneck speed of entry, of about 20,000 kilometers per hour. The retro rockets, the huge parachute and a crane must get the rover pose at the speed of a person walking. NASA will broadcast the entire landing live. The most exciting thing will be the “seven minutes of terror” prior to landing.
One minute after entering the atmosphere, the spacecraft will reach its peak temperature due to the friction of the air: 1,300 degrees, which must withstand its heat shield. Following the deployment of the parachute, nearly 22 meters in diameter, like a seven-story building, and its subsequent unhooking, a completely new device will come into play: the TRN. It is an artificial intelligence system that takes pictures of the ground and “thinks” about the most suitable place to land. At 21 meters from the ground, a crane will deploy chains of about seven meters long from which the valuable rover. If all goes well, its wheels will contact the ground at three kilometers per hour, and the crane will activate its rockets to go crashing away from the Perseverance.
The entire landing sequence is automatic. Those responsible for mission control will not be able to do anything to correct the trajectory or fix problems. The landing is scheduled for 21:55 peninsular. If the United States succeeds, it will have become the only country to have landed five consecutive rovers on Mars; a milestone that will put it ahead of China, its main competitor, which in a few weeks will try to reach Mars with an orbiter, a lander and a mobile vehicle, all the first time, something that has never been done before.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.