After a furious approach, the US robot vehicle “Perseverance” reaches the Red Planet unscathed. The cheers are immense, contingency plans are torn apart. But the real work is only just beginning.
Mars has a new visitor, albeit a robotic one: after a journey of more than 472 million kilometers, the American robotic vehicle Perseverance touched down gently in the Martian dust on Thursday evening.
The rover, which weighs more than a ton, had previously raced through the planet’s atmosphere. It dangled under a parachute, it danced on eight brake engines towards Mars and finally abseiled down to the surface from a hovering crane. A furious maneuver – and it went exactly as the US space agency Nasa had dreamed of (here is the live ticker of the landing).
“Landings on Mars are among the most difficult things you can imagine, even if it may look easy,” said NASA head of science Thomas Zurbuchen after the successful landing and tore up the emergency plan that he created for a possible failure in front of the cameras would have.
But as great as the joy and success on Thursday evening were, work is only just beginning for Perseverance (in German: “Perseverance”). In the coming years, the robotic astrobiologist, as Zurbuchen calls his newest vehicle, will look for traces of former life . And he is supposed to pack soil samples – in the hope that one day he will be able to transport them to earth.
The engineers did without wild hugs and euphoric claps, known from previous missions, but that was solely due to Corona.
After all, landings on Mars are still something special, even if they seem almost routine at NASA: Of 17 probes that had set out for the surface of the Red Planet in the past five decades, only eight arrived on the ground gently and intact – they all came from the USA. Perseverance is now number nine.
Each signal travels for minutes
The approach to Mars, during which space probes have to slow down from almost 20,000 kilometers per hour to walking speed within seven minutes, was particularly tricky this time. Perseverance is not only the heaviest and largest Mars rover to date, its mission managers also selected an extremely complex landing site: the Jezero crater. About 3.5 billion years ago there was a lake there, almost as big as today’s Lake Constance, possibly full of primitive life. But what there is definitely there are furrows and sandy spots, boulders and steep cliffs. “A great place for science,” said the responsible land engineer Allen Chen a few days before arriving on Mars. “From a landing perspective, however, I see one thing above all: dangers.”
The great distances do the rest. Since every signal from earth to the red planet travels for minutes – currently the delay is a good eleven minutes – engineers can only watch and not intervene when attempts are made to land. This time, however, they had taken precautions and donated artificial intelligence to their landing capsule. Thanks to radar, cameras and stored maps of Mars, the probe was not only able to determine its position independently, it also decided for itself when – still ten kilometers high above Mars – its braking parachute should be opened.
1 / 12
The first images, which the rover immediately radioed to earth, showed how well this apparently worked: the next larger chunks that could have been dangerous for the vehicle with the dimensions of a car were far away.
The n a small helicopter will be sent on test flights – it would be the first controlled flight in the atmosphere of a strange planet.
Samples will be returned within the next decade at the earliest
The mission managers have planned at least two years for this and a journey of up to 25 kilometers. It is said to go over the bottom of the old lake, through a river delta, along the coast and up onto the cliffs.
While previous rovers had primarily devoted themselves to the question of whether the environmental conditions once existed on Mars, Perseverance is now for the first time looking directly for traces of life – not for small green males, but for deposits that microbes may have left in the sediments of the huge lake. And the rover is supposed to drill: Perseverance will take more than three dozen soil samples, each as large as a piece of blackboard chalk.
The samples will end up in a container that another robotic vehicle will later collect and bring to Earth for more detailed analysis.
However, this Thursday evening, with all the cheering, is even further away than the next actions of the new rover: Nasa does not expect the return flight of samples to Earth before the next decade.