LOS ANGELES • Nasa’s Mars rover Perseverance, the most advanced robotic astrobiology lab ever flown to another world, neared the end of its seven-month, 470 million km journey, on target for a daredevil landing attempt on the red planet.
Hurtling through space across the last 240,000km of its voyage, Perseverance was headed for a touchdown yesterday inside a vast basin called Jezero Crater, site of a long-vanished Martian lake bed.
Engineers hope to confirm the landing, and possibly receive a first surface image, shortly after touchdown, set for 8.55pm GMT yesterday (4.55am Singapore time today), from signals relayed to Earth by one of several Mars orbiters.
The chief objective of the two-year, US$2.7 billion (S$3.58 billion) mission is to search for signs of microbial organisms that may have flourished on Mars some three billion years ago, when the planet was warmer, wetter and presumably more hospitable to life.
Larger and more sophisticated than any of the four mobile science vehicles Nasa landed on Mars before it, Perseverance is designed to extract rock samples for analysis back on Earth – the first such specimens ever collected by humankind from another planet.
The rover, still packed inside the Mars-bound “cruise” stage of the spacecraft, appears “comfortably” on track for a “bull’s eye” landing under fair Martian skies, said Mr Al Chen, head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s descent and landing team.
“That’s pretty incredible considering our last manoeuvre was back in December,” he told an online briefing.
Nasa engineers sent the spacecraft a command days ago activating its autopilot systems for the final phase of its flight, and Mr Chen anticipates no need for further course correction from mission control.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that getting the rover safely onto Martian soil was the riskiest part of the mission, saying: “We just can’t guarantee success.”
Building on nearly 20 American outings to Mars dating back to the 1965 Mariner flyby, the success of Perseverance would set the stage for conclusively showing whether life has ever existed beyond Earth, while paving the way for eventually sending humans to explore the fourth planet from the sun.
Perseverance is carrying some novel demonstration projects as well. They include a miniature helicopter built to test the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet, and a device to convert carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere into pure oxygen.
The rover also comes with a weather station, 19 cameras and even two microphones that Nasa hopes will give greater sensory depth to the images it records.
Safe arrival hinges on a self-guided, seemingly far-fetched sequence of events unfolding with flawless precision within seven minutes.
The spacecraft is expected to pierce Mars’ atmosphere at 19,300kmh, and angled to produce slight aerodynamic lift while jet thrusters adjust its trajectory.
If all goes well, the interval that Nasa half-jokingly calls the “seven minutes of terror” will end with the rover intact amid a Martian landscape long coveted by scientists for its rich potential as a geobiological laboratory.
What makes the crater’s terrain – deeply carved by long-vanished flows of liquid water – so tantalising to scientists also makes it especially treacherous as a landing zone, requiring self-navigation technology never before used in spaceflight.
As Mr Chen put it on Wednesday: “It’s full of the stuff that scientists want to see but stuff that I don’t want to land on.”