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TO UPDATE: NASA successful landed his Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars. Read more about it here.
NASA is hours away from its most ambitious Mars mission to date. The US space agency will attempt to land the Perseverance rover after a journey of more than six months on the red planet.
Perseverance was built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and is the fifth and most technologically advanced rover the agency plans to deploy on the surface of Mars for nearly two years. The rover and its spaceship are equipped with two dozen cameras to capture its expedition. The robot is full of scientific instruments to measure the geology of the planet – and hopefully collect samples that NASA plans to return to Earth one day.
"Mars stimulates our imagination and has been part of our dreams for many decades. Persistence balances the long history of systematic science-driven exploration of Mars," said Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, deputy administrator of NASA's Directorate for Scientific Missions, in a briefing before landing.
The rover is supposed to touch down on the surface at around 3:55 p.m. ET.
The Endurance has traveled 293 million miles to reach Mars since its launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on July 30. The rover is about the size of a small car, weighs about a ton in total, and is 10 feet long by 9 feet wide by seven feet tall. It has a robotic arm that is about 7 feet long, the end of which has a robotic hand that has a camera, chemical analyzer, and rock drill.
"We want to land on Mars … and with the cameras turned on so that the whole world is inspired by us," said Zurbuchen.
The landing will include what NASA engineers call the "Seven Minutes of Terror". This is the time it takes to enter the Martian atmosphere and descend to the surface. It is known as such because it takes 11 minutes for communication to occur from the rover back to Earth. This means that the spacecraft and the rover have to land autonomously for the time delay.
An animation of the Mars rover Perseverance entering the atmosphere of the red planet in a protective spaceship.
NASA / JPL-Caltech
Erisa Stilley, co-head of entry, descent and landing systems at NASA's JPL, explained how the landing process is carefully coordinated after the rover has come through the atmosphere.
"As soon as the persistence on the parachute drops, we can now let go of the heat shield that protected us as we entered and for the first time [autonomously] turn on the radar and start looking at the ground," Stilley said in a briefing before the Landing.
Perseverance then uses a map on board and searches an area of property worth about 120 soccer fields on the surface to find the safest place to land.
"That happens in the 2.4 seconds it takes the stamina to send commands that separate from the rear hull and start a free fall," Stilley said.
"When we have this knowledge and we are done with our free fall, we will fire the missiles," added Stilley. "We're going from 170 mph at this point to about two [miles per hour] as we slow down and prepare for the 'sky crane' maneuver."
Persistence will take photos in entry time, which Stilley said NASA is hoping to "produce some images we've never seen before".
This illustration shows the events in the final minutes of the nearly seven-month journey NASA's Perseverance rover makes to Mars
NASA / JPL-Caltech
The rover wants to land in the Jezero crater, a 45 km wide basin in the northern hemisphere of Mars. It's a place NASA believes a body of water the size of Lake Tahoe was flowing. NASA's science team is hoping that the ancient river delta may have received organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life that Perseverance will attempt to detect with its instruments.
NASA invested around $ 2.4 billion to build and launch the Perseverance mission. Another 300 million US dollars are to land and operate the rover on the surface of Mars.
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