Thursday February thee 18th was a big day. From her office in the Keith Wiess Geological Laboratories, EEPS planetary scientist Kirsten Siebach led a Mars 2020 mission virtual landing party. More than 120 participants were treated to a first-hand account of the upcoming landing from one of only 13 scientists chosen to operate the rover and help select samples.
Siebach answered numerous questions about the Mars 2020 mission, the Perseverance Rover and its analytical instrument payload, and the sample collection activities that she will be helping to direct. You can watch both the Q&A and entire landing party zoom meeting HERE.
At about 5 minutes from Mars 2020 atmospheric entry, Kirsten moved to the EEPS Chevron Visualization Laboratory where she watched the final countdown—known as Entry Descent and Landing or EDL, with Rice undergraduate Madison Morris. Morris is working with Siebach on research related to the upcoming rover activities.
The final 7-10 minutes, known as the ‘seven minutes of terror’, is the period during which the spacecraft must operate on its own, with no eyes to see and a 14 minute data delay back to Earth.
During those seven minutes, the spacecraft enters Mars atmosphere at almost 12,000 miles per hour (19,000 kmh). Facing towards the planet, a heat shield is the only protection the rover has as it descends down to an altitude of about 1 mile (1.5 km). The descent module then fires its engines to slow the spacecraft while JPL’s new terrain relative navigation system (TRN) identifies a place to land. The TRN scans the surface and compares it with maps of a landing ellipse that are already loaded into its database. A signal from the TRN triggers the deployment of a 70-foot (21-meter) diameter parachute that slows the craft further, bringing its descent down to a few meters per second. Finally, the hovering-landing sky crane system lowers the rover the rest of the way to the ground.
Siebach sits in silence, listening to the engineers mark each step in the process. At the final minute she stands, looking intently at the screen. As the flight engineers signal a successful deployment of the sky crane, cheers erupt on screen and in the Viz Lab. Perseverance has landed!!!
And the first picture from Jezero crater arrives.
Perseverance is proceeded by four other rovers, Sojourner in 1997, Spirt and Opportunity in 2004, and Curiosity in 2012. Perseverance is the largest, most advanced rover NASA has sent to another world. It traveled 293 million miles (472 million km) – over 203 days – to get to Mars. It will look directly for signs of past life on Mars, test ISRU tools, and collect samples from one of Mars oldest regions—what scientists believe is a river delta. The rocks in this region could tell us about Mars earliest wet history of the Red Planet and thus is a good target for signatures of past life.