Science and Technology

All eyes on Mars

M Ramesh | Updated on February 14, 2021

The countdown to the Perseverance rover’s landing on the red planet

A half-a-billion km journey that began on July 30, 2020, will end this week. If you log into NASA.gov/live and YouTube.com/NASA this Friday at 2.25 am, you will be able to watch the US space agency’s Mars rover Perseverance land on the red planet (if all goes well, that is, for half the missions to Mars have failed.) NASA has said that the landing would be livestreamed on Facebook, Twitter and Theta.TV.

The car-sized, 1.25-tonne rover will be parachuted into a 45-km-wide crater known as Jezero, believed to have been a lake 3.5 billion years ago, and hence could contain remnants of microbial life. The rover will collect and store rock and soil samples for return to Earth by a future mission.

Apart from scooping rocky Martian soil, Perseverance will also perform several experiments — the rover is packed with equipment, cameras, X-rays and so on. An interesting task, for example, is the Mars Oxygen In-situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), a technology demonstration that aims to produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide. If you can make oxygen on the planet, you will have fuel to fly back home, or deeper into space.

The Perseverance landing will be keenly watched all over the world, even though NASA has put landers and rovers on the neighbour eight times before — starting from Sojourner in 1997 to Curiosity, in 2012, which, incidentally, completed its 3,000th day on the planet on January 12. Perseverance is the heaviest of them all and meant for a long mission — one Mars year, or 687 Earth days, though it may well outlive its expected life.

Flight on Mars

The Perseverance rover has a co-passenger — a helicopter called Ingenuity. It travels hugging the underbelly of Perseverance and shall be detached and lowered onto a suitable place on the Martian surface.

The battery-powered 1.8 kg drone will explore how a flight can be achieved in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars, which is just a hundredth of Earth’s atmosphere in density and composed of carbon dioxide. (The planet is half the size of Earth but weighs only a tenth, and has a surface area equal to the dry land on Earth.) Helicopters stay in flight because their rotors push air down, so how would you do it when there is practically no air? That’s what Ingenuity seeks to know. Mars’s gravity is only 38 per cent of Earth’s, so that should help.

India connection

One of the key team members of the ‘Mission Mars2020’ is Swati Mohan, a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Mohan, as the Guidance and Control Operations Lead, has been with the mission since its inception in 2013 and has worked on ‘attitude control system’, which tells the rover where to land.

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Published on February 14, 2021
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