NASA rover Perseverance made a risky landing on Mars

On Thursday shortly before 10 p.m. CET, "seven minutes of horror" ended with jubilation and great relief: Signals from the NASA Mars rover Perseverance confirmed that it had successfully landed on Mars. During the ride through hell through the thin Martian atmosphere, the project team and all the scientists and engineers involved had no choice but to hope. Because the landing had to be completely autonomous, Mars is far too far from Earth to be controlled directly.

The complicated maneuver worked like a script. First, the probe that had brought the rover to Mars separated from the lander. This raced into the upper Martian atmosphere at 19,500 km / h. Then it got tricky, the lander's heat shields had to withstand temperatures of up to 1,300 degrees Celsius due to the friction. About eleven kilometers above the Martian surface, a huge parachute opened to slow down the lander further.

Soft landing

But that's not enough for a safe landing on Mars, the atmosphere of our neighboring planet is only a good one percent the density of the earth's atmosphere. So in the next step, the Perseverance landing module activated eight brake engines, which slowed things down further. Finally, the rover was lowered from the air on ropes and gently set down on the ground. The complete maneuver lasted exactly seven minutes - just "seven minutes of terror", as the engineer Swati Mohan from the NASA control center put it.

Promising landing area

Perseverance is now in the Jezero crater in the northern hemisphere of the planet. It is known from earlier data that there must have been a huge lake once there - at a time when the conditions on Mars were far more livable than they are today. The main objective of the mission is to look for traces of life in the sediments of this former lake and its tributaries.

Perseverance weighs around a ton and is the size of a small car - making it the largest and heaviest rover on Mars to date. Its high-tech laboratory includes seven scientific instruments, 23 cameras and a laser. The rover also has two microphones on board, which should bring us closer to the background noise on Mars. The US has invested two billion euros in development, construction and transport to Mars, and the operation itself has been budgeted at 250 million euros.

Powerful helicopter drone

The rover receives some support from a small helicopter drone that is supposed to undertake short test flights and take pictures. Ingenuity, as the aircraft is called, is primarily a test. Flights in the thin Martian atmosphere are an enormous challenge. The drone weighs only 1.8 kilograms, but is extremely powerful. Its four carbon fiber rotor blades have to rotate much faster than would be the case on Earth. Ingenuity is to prove for the first time that such flights are possible on Mars.

First return from Mars

In addition, Perseverance, already the fifth rover of the US space agency, is to collect interesting soil samples and store them in special containers. These are later to be picked up in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) and brought back to Earth - theoretically, this could work out by the early 2030s.

But how does it go on now? After the first system checks, which are already in progress, the rover will gradually "wake up" over the next few days and test the most important functions. He also has to find out his exact whereabouts. He apparently made it to the desired region in the Jezero crater, but where exactly he is there is still unclear.

Incidentally, Perseverance is not the only newcomer to our neighboring planet. Last summer, two other missions started almost at the same time as the NASA rover: a Mars probe for the United Arab Emirates and a Chinese mission. Both have now reached Mars orbit. The Arab probe Al-Amal will remain in orbit and explore the Martian climate, while the Chinese mission Tianwen-1 will also send a rover to the planet in the coming months. (David Rennert, February 19, 2021)