Two Days to Mars!

Illustration of the Perseverance rover on Mars (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It’s almost time! In just two days—or “sols,” if you’re counting in Mars time—NASA’s newest, biggest and most advanced rover ever, named Perseverance, will touch down on Mars, making it the fifth mobile wheeled robot ever to explore the surface of the Red Planet and the third robot currently in operation on Mars.

And if that’s not enough, Perseverance isn’t traveling alone—it’s joined by another robot, a drone helicopter named Ingenuity that, if all goes as planned, will be the first human-made machine to achieve powered (but non-rocket) flight on another planet! It’s all very exciting, and you can watch the events unfold on Thursday, February 18 in as real-time as we can get from…(does the math)…127 million miles away!

Illustration of the Ingenuity helicopter (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Perseverance launched on July 30, 2020 at 7:50 a.m. EST (11:50 UTC) aboard a ULA Atlas V 541 rocket from Cape Canaveral on Florida’s historic “Space Coast.” It has since traveled over 290 million miles from Earth to catch up with Mars, both of which are of course always in motion in their respective orbits around the Sun.

On February 18 Perseverance will finally arrive at Mars, entering its atmosphere at over 12,000 mph and using a combination of an ablative heat shield, enormous parachute, a sky-crane with retrorockets, and eventually a series of cables to carefully place it (and Ingenuity) onto the surface at a gentle 2 mph near the western edge of a 28-mile-wide crater named Jezero at 3:55 p.m. Eastern U.S. time (that’s 12:55 p.m. PST and 20:55 UTC).

The whole EDL process (which stands for Entry, Descent, and Landing) takes about seven minutes…and it’s called “seven minutes of terror” by mission engineers, for good reason. One-way radio communication with Earth, even at the speed of light, will take several minutes longer than EDL because Mars is so far away. There’ll be no way of knowing how it’s going until well after it’s done, which is terrifying if that’s years of you and your workmates’ careers you’re waiting to hear back from! (Fortunately this is exactly how Curiosity landed on Mars in August 2012, so we know it works.)

Watch how the whole event will play out in the animation from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory below, which has been shortened by a few minutes for brevity.

What’s even more amazing is that, because of the communication delay of over 11 minutes, everything Perseverance will be doing during EDL will be completely automated, either pre-scripted via prior uploaded commands or based on its own analysis of the environment around it.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t be watching. Perseverance is going to Mars loaded with cameras—23 of them in total!—and seven of those will be dedicated to capturing images and video of the landing process, some looking up and some looking down.

A suite of cameras on various parts of the Mars 2020 spacecraft will provide more detailed views of landing than ever before. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

And if that’s not enough (and when is it ever?) Perseverance even has microphones that will capture the sounds of landing, and eventually the ambient noises on Mars’ surface!

This robotic Mars mission will truly be like no other.

Ultimately Perseverance will use its impressive suite of science instruments explore what appears to be an ancient river delta at the edge of the 3.5-billion-year-old Jezero crater, searching for signs of ancient life that may have once thrived there and collecting samples that will eventually be returned to Earth for further study.

The white circle near the center of this image of Mars represents the location where NASA’s Perseverance rover is expected to land on Feb. 18, 2021. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Of course it will take some time for the pictures and audio recordings to make it to Earth, but once they do they’ll certainly be shared with the public. In fact the landing event will be aired live on NASA’s public TV and online broadcasting channels, as well as on social media, beginning at 2:15 p.m. EST / 19:15 UTC (with plenty of supporting programs and interviews related to the mission in the hours leading up to the landing as well.) You can watch it all on NASA TV if your cable supplier offers it or stream it live on smart devices in the NASA app or on NASA’s YouTube channel, embedded below.

And as always you can access live NASA broadcasts on the “NASA Live” link in the toolbar at the top of my page (with more handy links in there too.)

So get ready, Mars, there’s a new robot (with a little flying friend) on the way to meet you! Go Perseverance! Go Ingenuity! Go NASA!

Learn more about the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission here.

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