After the “seven minutes of terror”, the Perseverance rover is safely stationed in the Jezero crater on Mars, where more than 40 years earlier it will continue the search for the life of Mars initiated by the Viking probes.
The drama was followed in a mix of face-to-face and remote, with the number of people in the JPL (Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory) control center being restricted by the pandemic.
The spaceship broadcast “tones” in a narrow band broadcast that was sent directly to Earth, indicating each new landing stage. At the last minute, the descent site lost direct line of sight to the third planet, and NASA had to rely on telemetry retransmission from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter orbiter. At 5:55 p.m. it was all over. The rover was on Martian soil and transmitted its first images, which were created with the vehicle’s technical cameras. (Remember, this is the time signals were received on Earth. It all happened in an automated manner about 11 minutes earlier, and the delay is related to the time it takes for a radio signal to travel the Earth’s distance. )
With success, there are 9 out of 10 successful attempts for Americans on the red planet, an impressive 90% success rate. And what will not be missing in the coming days are sensational visions of Mars. After all, it is the mission with the largest number of cameras ever sent to a target in space in a single package: there are a total of 23 with the right to two microphones (another novelty).
Communication is limited during the descent. But after the descent, the flow of information from the neighboring planet must be overwhelming and stretch over the next few days. “I will rest because I will be the person who will get the data from the first morning on Mars,” says Ivair Gontijo, a Brazilian physicist who works at JPL and is part of the mission.
The rover sank at 3:53 p.m. (local time in Jezero crater). And there is a catch: Mars day is a little longer than terrestrial, 24h39. The researchers involved in the vehicle’s first operations spend a month in the “Mars spindle”. “I’ll be working all night Thursday through Friday from 8:00 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. when we get data from the first morning on Mars,” added Gontijo. “We change two time zones every three days, 40 minutes later every day.”
A large part of the first 30 days will be spent testing all on-board equipment prior to the start of the mission on Mars. The central mast needs to be raised and the robotic arm does calisthenics exercises to check that everything is in order.
This also includes a small transit of five meters to test locomotion and of course all instruments must send operational and calibration data after a journey of about seven months in space.
The data that must first be sent to Earth includes those related to the landing process itself. For the first time, cameras will record every step of the descent in high definition, from the opening of the parachutes to the action of the powered crane lowering the rover on the ground. And there’s a built-in microphone so you can expect to hear the sounds of Mars for the first time.
Landing site for the Perseverance rover near a dry delta in the Jezero crater Mars. (Image credit: NASA)
The Jezero Crater has been carefully selected by scientists and engineers to provide the best scientific return on the mission.
It is a place where previous missions could never descend due to the irregularity of the terrain. Only the artificial intelligence that began with the Mars 2020 mission carrying the Perseverance rover and its loyal squire, the Ingenuity mini helicopter, would make such a risky landing possible.
The feature that makes Jezero so attractive is the clear presence of an ancient river delta that ends in an ancient lake. Today of course everything is dry. 4 billion years ago, water flowed over the surface of Mars. Analysis using orbital images suggests this is one of the best places on Mars to get fossils like stromatolites – traces of bacteria and archaea that may have existed on the red planet billions of years ago.
Before conquering interplanetary space, Perseverance’s instruments were extensively tested under similar conditions here on Earth. It analyzed rocks from Australia’s Woomera region, where some of the oldest evidence of life on earth was found. The premise is that the rover can identify if something similar exists on Mars at the same time.
Of course, science isn’t such an easy game. The researchers bet that all the signs of life are so ambiguous that they prevent an irrefutable determination, particularly due to the instrumental limitation of remote operations on Mars. Because of this, one of the primary goals of the mission is to collect samples and isolate them in tubes, which are then collected by another rover and sent back to Earth by rocket.
It is believed that only with observations in the best equipped laboratories on this planet can it be confirmed without a doubt that there was life in the neighboring world.
Yet we are never closer to the answer to the ancestral question: Are we alone in the universe? The discovery that Mars had bacteria 4 billion years ago doesn’t keep us very company, of course. However, it is necessary to go beyond the objective fact to have an impact: if the red planet saw life flourish as it did on Earth, it is a sign that the terrestrial biosphere is not the result of an accident. On the contrary, when the conditions of life manifest, life appears. And that inevitably leads to the conclusion that the universe was full of life.
Of course, the opposite is also true. If perseverance finds nothing in one of the most promising places for finding microbial fossils on Mars, the result will have an impact. “Even if we come to the conclusion that there is absolutely nothing there, it is also an interesting result,” said Gontijo. “Both the planet Mars and the planet Earth were formed from the same nebula from which the sun and other planets originate. Why is there so much carbon and so much living carbon here and it wouldn’t exist there? “
So this is the adventure of exploration. The answers await us on Mars.
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