Above: Perseverance touches down on Mars aided by a jet-powered sky crane in this artist rendering. Credit: NASA-JPL.
After more than six months in flight, NASA’s Perseverance rover will touch down on the Red Planet on Feb. 18 at noon PST, beginning a new era of scientific research on Mars.
Perseverance’s core mission is to answer the burning question: did life once exist on Mars? It will explore an impact site known as Jezero Crater—a 28-mile-wide cauldron just north of the planet’s equator. Scientists believe it once contained a lake capable of supporting life. If any place in the solar system might have contained life, Jezero crater is it. Perseverance will collect rock and soil samples to return to Earth for further study in the 2030s. They will be the first Martian rocks brought back by humans.
The rover is accompanied by the first planetary helicopter, Ingenuity, which is designed to complete five test flights in the thin Martian atmosphere. But first, NASA must overcome the not-small hurdle of putting the robot duo safely on the ground.
Landing on Mars is hard. NASA has four successful landings under its belt, which is promising considering that space agencies only succeed about 40% of the time. Everything must go right in an intricate sequence of maneuvers designed to gently place NASA’s $2.7 billion rover—the most advanced ever built—on Martian ground.
Upon entry of Mars’ atmosphere, Perseverance will need to slow its flight from a furious 12,500 mph to 2 mph using a parachute and powered descent engine. The landing segment of the descent will incorporate a jet-powered sky crane, lowering the rover to the surface using three cables. This technique successfully landed NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012. Entry, descent and landing will happen over the course of seven minutes—also called the “seven minutes of terror,” because NASA will have no contact with Perseverance until after it lands.
Mars will be a hotspot for robotic touchdowns in February. NASA’s mission will be followed by two additional landings within days: the UAE’s first interplanetary probe Hope and China’s first probe, lander and rover mission, Tianwen-1. NASA will broadcast the Perseverance rover landing live beginning at 11:15 a.m. PST on Feb. 18.