On a late July morning of last year, an Atlas V-541 rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral Launch Site carrying the Perseverance Mars Rover. About eight months later, the day came where we would find out whether the landing was successful or not. The journey from the top of Mars’ atmosphere to the ground is easier said than done. Factors such as the nature of Mars’s terrain and the entering speed of the atmosphere have provided engineers with a plethora of challenges. Regardless, on February 18th, at 12:55 p.m. PST, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory successfully completed the great feat of landing Perseverance on Mars.
Perseverance vs. Curiosity
Although an incredible accomplishment for humanity, landing Perseverance is not our first attempt at exploring the neighboring planet. Our first Martian landing dates back to 1976 with the Viking 1. Additionally, roughly nine years ago, another rover named Curiosity landed on Gale Crater, about 2,300 miles from Perseverance’s landing site. Since this time, scientists and engineers of NASA have made marvelous strides in design by learning from the problems and vulnerabilities that Curiosity is currently facing. Both have relatively the same size, but Perseverance is over 100 kilograms heavier, which can only mean one thing: major upgrades have been made.
One of the key differences between the two rovers is the technology they used to land. Often dubbed “7 minutes of terror,” the procedure of safely landing a rover on Mars is quite the task. Also, the location where NASA chose to land Perseverance, Jezero Crater, is not exactly an open parking lot. To combat this, engineers adapted the rover with substantially more cameras to integrate a new way of landing. While Curiosity took pictures purely for analysis back on Earth, Perseverance matches its photographs with a map to figure out where it is, which allows it to steer itself onto a landing site that will not damage the machinery.
In addition, one of the biggest dilemmas noticed so far in the Curiosity Rover is the wear and tear that the rough Martian terrain has exerted on its wheels. However, engineers have learned from their experiences and photos of the terrain, which led them to make crucial changes to the wheel design, such as increased diameter and much sturdier treads to mitigate the friction caused by rocks. This improvement will hopefully allow Perseverance to have a longer lifespan than its older counterpart and travel to locations we thought were not previously possible.
Another way that Perseverance differentiates itself from Curiosity is the attachment of Ingenuity, a robotic helicopter that will be our first attempt at controlling the flight of something on another planet. Although not directly part of the Perseverance Mars Mission, the demonstration of this technology could serve as an example for future aerial Martian missions if it completes its tests successfully.
Where Is it Landing and Why?
The Perseverance Rover landed on Jezero Crater, which is a 28-mile-wide basin north of the Martian equator. Although there were many candidates for potential landing sites, this location won for a reason. Based on our current images, many scientists compare the image of Jezero Crater to that of an empty lake, along with a river delta, which is responsible for moving sediments that have the potential to reveal signs of previous life.
Over large periods, colonies of bacteria can grow big enough to an observable size. From our experience with trying to date Earth using this phenomenon, the analysis of sediments such as clay or silts shows great promise of having stromatolites, or fossils containing microbial life. This is the primary reason the Jezero Crater area was chosen for research.
Although there is still a great amount of research for Perseverance to complete, one of the mission’s most daunting tasks has been accomplished. This endeavor is a huge breakthrough for humanity and has the potential to answer some of our most perplexing questions, such as if a future society on Mars is possible, or whether or not we are alone in our solar system.