Now, it's NASA's turn. China's Tianwen-1 spacecraft safely entered Martian orbit on Feb. 10, just one day after the United Arab Emirates Hope probe arrived. After a 6½-month journey, the Perseverance rover is set to land in Jezero crater Thursday, Feb. 18, at 2:55 p.m. But first, the spacecraft has to survive the same "seven minutes of terror" as its predecessor, Curiosity, did back in 2012.
When it first brushes the Martian atmosphere the probe will be traveling at around 12,000 miles an hour (19,300 kph) with just seven minutes to decelerate to 2 mph to make a safe landing. And because radio signals from the Earth currently take 11.3 light minutes to reach Mars, all of this will happen autonomously. No last-minute tweaks from back home in case there's trouble.
Weighing in at 2,260 pounds, Perseverance is the heaviest and most complicated piece of machinery to ever set wheels on the Red Planet. It's basically a roving biological laboratory that will nose around for two years looking for potential signs of microbial life. The last time we deliberately tested for life on Mars was 45 years ago during the Viking missions. Unfortunately, the results were inconclusive.
Since then, NASA has been methodical and deliberate in its approach to Martian biology. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on the planet in 2004 to determine if it once harbored liquid water. It did. Curiosity examined whether those wet environments were potentially habitable. They were.
Perseverance is the logical next step. Using a special, closeup camera it can examine particles (fossils?) as small as a grain of salt. Mission planners expect the rover to gather and begin analyzing its first samples by the summer. But a single laboratory can only do so much. That's why Perseverance will cache promising soil and rocks into tubes for later pickup and return to Earth by future missions.
NASA hopes to land Perseverance at the foot of the enormous cliff in Jezero crater's ancient delta. The 30-mile-wide crater was home to a lake four billion years ago, when the Martian climate was far more clement than today and likely as conducive to life as the ancient Earth. During the nominal two-year mission, equal to one Mars-year, the rover is expected to tally 10 miles on its odometer.
You can watch all the excitement live on NASA TV or just by clicking the YouTube screen above. Landing coverage begins at 1:15 p.m. NASA will also provide a live Spanish-language commentary titled "Juntos Perseveramos" starting at 1:30 p.m.
While it's not possible to watch the actual landing live, there's a good chance Perseverance will transmit a photo of the Martian surface shortly after a successful touchdown. Stick around!
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.