Nasa is ready to launch a Perseverance rover and mini helicopter on Mars

The largest and most solemn vehicle to ever land on Mars will land on the red planet next week, embarking on a two-year mission to search for life markers and pave the way for human journeys. future.

All well and good, on Thursday the $ 2.7bn Perseverance rover will crash down a Jezero Crater near the Martian equator to study the planet’s surface and collect samples to send back to Earth. An ultralight helicopter on board will also be launched in the first powered flight on another planet.

“Perseverance is a major refresh of the overlords and rovers we have sent to the planet before,” said Dr Andrew Coates, a space scientist at University College London who has been involved in Mars missions for 20 years. year.

But the car-sized permanence must first survive what Nasa engineers called “seven minutes of horror” when the Curiosity rover landed in 2012. That’s the time it takes to be distracted from the 20,000 entry speed. kph, when the craft reaches the Martian Atmosphere, to a sled town that is slower than walking distance.

The technology used will be an updated version of that on Curiosity, with additional safety features including an “incentive range” to guide the craft’s parachute opening and to maximize the opportunity for a leisurely stroll.

To do this, perseverance must cut itself free from the parachute and start rocket-powered descent – “a kind of jetpack with eight engines marked at the ground”, as Al Chen, the engineer responsible for rescue and rescue, put it. he landed.

In the final stage a “sky mast” lowers the rover to the surface of a set of cables. When the lawyer notices that his wheels are touching the ground, he cuts the cables that connect him to the rescue vehicle, which flies away to land a safe distance away. .

A descent may take only seven minutes but mission commanders at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California will not know for 11 minutes – the time taken by radio signals to travel 200m back to Earth – whether permanence has lain safely.

Jezero Crater was chosen as the fall site because Nasa scientists believe that one of the best places on Mars is to find traces of ancient microbial life. More than 3bn years ago, when water flowed on Mars, it was a lake, fed by a river with a delta.

Graphic illuminating the scientific instruments carried by the Perseverance rover on Mars

Perseverance travels around the now-abandoned old country, armed with instruments to dig up and examine the rocks and soil – physically and chemically – for fossil signs of ancient life. Scientists do not intend to find living organisms.

An aerial view of the crater will be provided by the Ingenuity helicopter, weighing just 1.8kg, which is expected to be tested five times. It’s not part of a primary science mission but what Nasa calls a technology demonstration, to show how well rotorcraft can perform in a Martian atmosphere that is just 1 percent as dense as Earth.

Another forward-looking technology test is the In-Situ Mars Oxygen Utility Test the size of a toaster, or Moxie, that removes oxygen from Mars’ thin air by electronically breaking down carbon dioxide . If astronauts ever landed and lived on the red planet they would have to generate oxygen locally to breathe and an ingredient for fuel.

Perseverance also leaves a legacy on the Martian surface for future missions. Its Caching Sampling System puts rock and broken dust in metal cans and leaves them collected for collection and transported to Earth with future missions planned by Nasa in collaboration with Group European space.

Sometime in the early 2030s, they hope, scientists will be able to study these samples in an earthly laboratory using far too large and complex equipment to send to another planet.

Graphic showing how the Ingenuity helicopter will be launched from the Perseverance rover on Mars and highlighting some of its parts

Perseverance – or rover Rosalind Franklin due to launch next year as part of ExoMars Europe’s mission – may have by then received signs of life in the past or even today on Mars. Persistence is looking among other things for geological evidence of stromatolites, deposits with layers built up by microbes in the ancient lake of Jezero.

But confirmation may have to wait a few years for laboratory analysis of the samples to return to Earth. “Even if we don’t get any evidence of life, that would be important,” said Ken Farley, a sustainability project scientist. “We would have carried out an in-depth study of the arable environment and shown that it was uninhabited.”

On the other hand, if unparalleled evidence for biological activity was found on the same cultivated planet studied outside of Earth, scientists could only draw one conclusion: yes the universe pressing on life.