Nasa Mars rover: Perserverance heads for touchdown on the red planet.
After a seven-month, 470-million-km journey, Nasa’s six-wheeled robot is scheduled to land on Mars at 20:55 GMT today. Never has a science mission gone to the planet with so sophisticated a suite of instruments; never has a robot been targeted at so promising a location.
Jezero Crater, the intended touchdown zone, bears all the hallmarks in satellite imagery of once having held a giant lake. And where there’s been abundant water, perhaps there’s been biology as well.
Perseverance will sift and drill into the sediments to look for traces of ancient microbial activity. The most propitious examples will be packaged for return to Earth by later missions.
“But before we can get that surface mission going, we have to land on Mars and that is always a challenging feat,” said Matt Wallace, Nasa’s deputy project manager for Perseverance.
“This is one of the most difficult manoeuvres we do in the space business. Almost 50% of the spacecraft sent to the surface of Mars have failed, so we know we have our work cut out to get down safely at Jezero.”
Of the 14 landing attempts at the planet, eight have been successful – all of them American. Indeed, Nasa has only got it wrong once, way back in 1999. Engineers will be following proceedings at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Telemetry from the rover during its descent will be relayed by an overflying satellite – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The team will also be listening to a series of low-data tones coming back direct from the robot itself.
A signal confirming touchdown should arrive at Earth at 20:55 GMT. With luck, we could even be looking at the first pictures of Jezero just a few minutes afterwards.