What to expect when the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover arrives at the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021.
NASA – With about 2.4 million miles (3.9 million kilometers) left to travel in space, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is days away from attempting to land the agency’s fifth rover on the Red Planet. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, where the mission is managed, have confirmed that the spacecraft is healthy and on target to touch down in Jezero Crater at around 3:55 p.m. EST (12:55 p.m. PST) on Feb. 18, 2021.
“Perseverance is NASA’s most ambitious Mars rover mission yet, focused scientifically on finding out whether there was ever any life on Mars in the past,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “To answer this question, the landing team will have its hands full getting us to Jezero Crater – the most challenging Martian terrain ever targeted for a landing.”
Jezero is a basin where scientists believe an ancient river flowed into a lake and deposited sediments in a fan shape known as a delta. Scientists think the environment here was likely to have preserved signs of any life that gained a foothold billions of years ago – but Jezero also has steep cliffs, sand dunes, and boulder fields. Landing on Mars is difficult – only about 50% of all previous Mars landing attempts have succeeded – and these geological features make it even more so. The Perseverance team is building on lessons from previous touchdowns and employing new technologies that enable the spacecraft to target its landing site more accurately and avoid hazards autonomously.
“The Perseverance team is putting the final touches on the complex choreography required to land in Jezero Crater,” said Jennifer Trosper, deputy project manager for the mission at JPL. “No Mars landing is guaranteed, but we have been preparing a decade to put this rover’s wheels down on the surface of Mars and get to work.”
You will get to watch the drama of Perseverance’s entry, descent, and landing (EDL) – the riskiest portion of the rover’s mission that some engineers call the “seven minutes of terror” – live on NASA TV. Commentary starts at 2:15 p.m. EST (11:15 a.m. PST) on Feb. 18. Engineers expect to receive notice of key milestones for landing at the estimated times below. (Because of the distance the signals have to travel from Mars to Earth, these events actually take place on Mars 11 minutes, 22 seconds earlier than what is noted here.)
– Cruise stage separation: The part of the spacecraft that has been flying Perseverance – with NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attached to its belly – through space for the last six-and-a-half months will separate from the entry capsule at about 3:38 p.m. EST (12:38 p.m. PST).
– Atmospheric entry: The spacecraft is expected to hit the top of the Martian atmosphere traveling at about 12,100 mph (19,500 kph) at 3:48 p.m. EST (12:48 p.m. PST).
– Peak heating: Friction from the atmosphere will heat up the bottom of the spacecraft to temperatures as high as about 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,300 degrees Celsius) at 3:49 p.m. EST (12:49 p.m. PST).
– Parachute deployment: The spacecraft will deploy its parachute at supersonic speed at around 3:52 p.m. EST (12:52 p.m. PST). The exact deployment time is based on the new Range Trigger technology, which improves the precision of the spacecraft’s ability to hit a landing target.
– Heat shield separation: The protective bottom of the entry capsule will detach about 20 seconds after the parachute deployment. This allows the rover to use a radar to determine how far it is from the ground and employ its Terrain-Relative Navigation technology to find a safe landing site.
– Back shell separation: The back half of the entry capsule that is fastened to the parachute will separate from the rover and its “jetpack” (known as the descent stage) at 3:54 p.m. EST (12:54 p.m. PST). The jetpack will use retrorockets to slow down and fly to the landing site.
– Touchdown: The spacecraft’s descent stage, using the sky crane maneuver, will lower the rover down to the surface on nylon tethers. The rover is expected to touch down on the surface of Mars at human walking speed (about 1.7 mph, or 2.7 kph) at around 3:55 p.m. EST (12:55 p.m. PST).
A variety of factors can affect the precise timing of the milestones listed above, including properties of the Martian atmosphere that are hard to predict until the spacecraft actually flies through.
Mission controllers also may not be able to confirm these milestones at the times listed above because of the complexity of deep-space communications. The flow of detailed engineering data (called telemetry) in near-real-time relies on a new kind of relay capability added this past year to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Engineers expect additional data to return to Earth directly through NASA’s Deep Space Network and two other Earth-based antennas until shortly before touchdown.
It’s important to note that the rover can land safely on Mars without communications with Earth: Perseverance has pre-programmed landing instructions and significant autonomy. Additional communication passes are planned in the hours and days following the landing event.
Once on the surface, one of Perseverance’s first activities will be to take pictures of its new home and transmit them back to Earth. Over the following days, engineers will also check on the health of the rover and deploy the remote sensing mast (otherwise known as its “head”) so it can take more pictures. The Perseverance team will then take more than a month to thoroughly inspect the rover and load new flight software to prepare for its search for ancient life on Mars. During the same period, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter team will be making sure their small but mighty robot is prepared for the first attempt at controlled, powered aerodynamic flight on another planet.
“The Ingenuity team will be on the edge of our seats with the Perseverance team on landing day,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager at JPL. “We can’t wait until the rover and the helicopter are both safely on the surface of Mars and ready for action.”
More About the Perseverance Mission
A key objective of Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and will be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and sediment for later return to Earth.
Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.
The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger NASA initiative that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.
JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission and the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter technology demonstration for NASA.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is the first aircraft humanity has sent to another planet to attempt powered, controlled flight. If its experimental flight test program succeeds, the data returned could benefit future explorations of the Red Planet – including those by astronauts – by adding the aerial dimension, which is not available today.
While Ingenuity is a technology experiment that is separate from the rover’s science mission, the helicopter launched to Mars on July 30, 2020, attached to the belly of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. They will land together in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.
7 Things to Know About Ingenuity
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is small but mighty. In a mere six years, it went from being an implausible prospect to a 4-pound (1.8-kg), space-certified companion to Mars aboard the Perseverance rover. And when Ingenuity arrives at Mars, it will aim to push the limits of flight. Here are seven things you should know about Ingenuity:
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Full image and caption
1. Ingenuity is an experimental flight test.
Ingenuity is what is known as a technology demonstration – a project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time, with limited scope. Previous groundbreaking technology demonstrations include the Mars Pathfinder rover, Sojourner, and the Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats that flew by Mars in 2018.
The helicopter does not carry science instruments and is a ride-along on the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission. Ingenuity’s objective is an engineering one: to demonstrate rotorcraft flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars.Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Full image and caption
2. Ingenuity will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet – a feat with a high degree of difficulty.
Mars has beyond bone-chilling temperatures, with nights as cold as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius) at Jezero Crater. These temperatures will push the original design limits of the off-the-shelf parts used in Ingenuity. Tests on Earth at the predicted temperatures indicate they should work as designed, but the team is looking forward to the real test at Mars. One of Ingenuity’s first objectives when it gets to the Red Planet is just to survive the frigid Martian night for the first time.
Mars has a rarefied atmosphere – just about 1% of the density of our atmosphere on Earth. Because the Mars atmosphere is so much less dense, Ingenuity is designed to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass on Earth. Mars does give the helicopter a little help: The gravity there is only about one-third that of Earth’s. That means slightly more mass can be lifted at a given spin rate.
Ingenuity will attempt up to five test flights within a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) demonstration window.
Its pioneering aspirations are similar to those of the Wright brothers’ Flyer, which achieved the first powered, controlled flight on Earth.Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Full image and caption
3. Ingenuity relies upon the Mars 2020 Perseverance spacecraft for safe passage to Mars and for operations on the Red Planet’s surface.
Ingenuity is nestled up sideways under the belly of the Perseverance rover, with a cover to protect it from the debris kicked up during landing. Both the rover and the helicopter are safely ensconced inside a clamshell-like entry capsule during the 293-million-mile (471-million-kilometer) journey to Mars. The power system on the Mars 2020 spacecraft periodically charges Ingenuity’s batteries on the way there.
To reach the Martian surface, Ingenuity rides along on Perseverance’s entry, descent, and landing system, which features a supersonic parachute, new “brains” for avoiding hazards autonomously, and components for the maneuver known as the sky crane. Only about 50% of the attempts to land on Mars, by any space agency, have been successful.
Once a suitable site to deploy the helicopter is found, the rover’s Mars Helicopter Delivery System will shed the landing cover, rotate the helicopter to a legs-down configuration, and gently drop Ingenuity on the surface in the first few months after landing. Throughout the helicopter’s commissioning and flight test campaign, the rover will assist in communications back and forth from Earth. The rover team also plans to collect some images of Ingenuity.Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Full image and caption
4. Ingenuity is smart for a small robot.
Delays are an inherent part of communicating with spacecraft across interplanetary distances, which means the helicopter’s flight controllers at JPL won’t be able to control the helicopter with a joystick or to look at engineering data or images from each flight until well after the flight takes place.
Therefore, Ingenuity will make some of its own decisions, based on parameters set by its engineers on Earth. Ingenuity has a kind of programmable thermostat, for instance, that will keep it warm on Mars. During flight, Ingenuity will analyze sensor data and images of the terrain to ensure it stays on the flight path programmed by project engineers.Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Full image and caption
5. Ingenuity has already demonstrated feats of engineering.
It took humankind centuries and a lot of trial and error to figure out how to fly planes and helicopters on Earth. In careful steps over six years, engineers on the Ingenuity team were able to demonstrate that it was possible to build something ultra-lightweight that could generate enough lift in Mars’ thin atmosphere to take off from the ground, and that could operate and survive autonomously in the challenging Martian environment. These accomplishments have already pushed the boundaries of flight.
Ingenuity has now survived the dynamic environment around launch and proved it can charge its off-the-shelf batteries in space. Flying over the surface of Mars will confirm results from flight tests performed in special space simulation chambers and provide insights into operating a helicopter on Mars.Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Full image and caption
6. The Ingenuity team counts success one step at a time.
Given Ingenuity’s experimental nature, the team has a long list of milestones the helicopter must pass before it can take off and land in the spring of 2021. The team will celebrate each milestone:
- Surviving the cruise to Mars and landing on the Red Planet
- Safely deploying to the surface from the belly of the Perseverance rover
- Autonomously keeping warm through the intensely cold Martian nights
- Autonomously charging itself with its solar panel
- Successfully communicating to and from the helicopter via the Mars Helicopter Base Station on the rover
If the first experimental flight test on another planet is successful, the Ingenuity team will attempt more test flights.Image credit: NASA | Full image and caption
7. If Ingenuity succeeds, future Mars exploration could include an ambitious aerial dimension.
Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be part of future robotic and human missions to Mars. Possible uses of a future helicopter on Mars include offering a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead, or by rovers and landers on the ground; high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans; and access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach. A future helicopter could even help carry light but vital payloads from one site to another.