Are you staying up tonight?, a friend asked me a few weeks ago. No, why? , I replied. He knows about my interest in space travel and expected that I was aware of the landing of a spacecraft on Mars that night. But I was not 😉

I checked the timing, the Perseverance would land at 4:55 am in the morning of 19 February (Malaysian time). In this blog I will explain why I decided to enjoy my sleep and check the next morning if the landing had been successful 😉

In 2018 I wrote a blog Landing on Mars, in which I described the various Mars missions, concentrating on the Curiosity Mission of 2012. The procedure to land the Curiosity was new, using a so-called sky-crane for the last phase.

Here is a diagram of what is called the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) process. The spacecraft enters the (thin) Martian atmosphere with a velocity of ~ 20.000 km/h. About 7 minutes later it must land on the surface with a velocity of less than 1 m/s. As signals between Earth and Mars take about 11 minutes, EDL can not be controlled from Earth, the whole process must have been programmed in the computers on board. Mission Control can only wait and see. That’s why these 7 minutes have been called the seven minutes of terror.

In my 2018 blog I describe the three phases in more detail, here is an very informative animation.

In 2012 everything went well, the Curiosity is actually still operational at the moment, much longer than originally planned.

The Perseverance that landed last week, has followed the same EDL procedure. Of course it must have been a relief for Mission Control that it was again a smooth process, but to keep calling it seven minutes of terror is exaggerated. That’s why I decided to enjoy a good night’s sleep. Here is the EDL process for the Perseverance. As you see it is basically the same as for Curiosity.

The two rovers also look the same. To the left Curiosity, the official name of the mission is Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). The Perseverance, to the right, is part of the Mission 2020 project.

Of course there are differences. The wheels have been redesigned, the robotic arm is heavier and the rover carries more cameras, 23 in total. Notice the “hazcams” at the front and the back of the rover, to avoid obstacles. Sherloc, Watson and Pixl are science cameras, I will tell a bit more about them later.

Some of the cameras have not a real science function, but have been added mainly to please the general public 🙂 . The back shell has a camera looking up to see how the parachute deploys. The camera of the sky-crane is looking down and can follow how the rover is being lowered to the ground. And the rover has a camera looking upwards to see the sky-crane. And a camera looking downward to the ground. That one is important, the spacecraft has a digital map of the surface and uses the camera images with a lot of AI to steer to the right location.

Keep in mind that all these images can only be transmitted back to Earth, after the spacecraft has landed. During the EDL, Mission Control only receives telemetry signals (altitude, speed etc). NASA has published a spectacular video where those messages are combined with the camera images. This is a YouTube video your really should watch (several times!). No wonder that this video has already been viewed more than 14 million times.

This map of Mars gives the location of the NASA missions. Insight and Curiosity are still operational. For a list of all Mars missions, click here.

Perseverance has landed in the Jezero crater. In this picture, taken by the Mars Express orbiter, I have marked the landing location with a cross.

This amazing photo has been taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, one day after the landing. During the EDL the heat shield, the parachute and the sky-crane (descent stage) have to be jettisoned away from the rover. When you enlarge the picture above, you can just see the two small craters.

Perseverance’s mission

Now that Perseverance has landed successfully on the Red Planet, what is it going to do? The missions of Curiosity and Perseverance are basically the same, to determine whether Mars ever was, or is, habitable to microbial life.

When Mars was a young planet, billions of years ago, water was abundant, there were lakes and rivers, similar to young Earth. On Earth life started about 3,5 billion years ago in the form of microbes. Fossil remains of these microbial colonies are called stromatolites. Here is an example, found in Australia, ~ 3.4 billion year old.

Could primitive microbial life have started on Mars in a similar way? Curiosity landed in the Gale crater, created about 3.7 billion year ago by a gigantic meteor impact. The crater became a lake, rivers deposited sediments. Curiosity collected surface material with its robotic arm, pulverised and heated it, before using a variety of analysing tools. Many organic molecules were found, for example thiophenes. which, on Earth at least, are primarily a result of biological processes.

Mars Mission with the Perseverance will continue this research with advanced technology.

Here is an artist impression how the Jezero crater may have looked like, when it was filled with water. Notice the river, top left, flowing into the lake. That river deposited a lot of sediments in the lake and it is near these sediments that Perseverance has landed.

A detailed map of the landing region, with the various geological structures in different colors. The “valley” of the former river and the delta are clearly visible The location of the rover again marked with a cross. The scientists have already made a proposal how the rover will explore the region (yellow line). The mission will take at least one Mars year (687 Earth days). If you want more information why the Jezero crater was chosen, click here.

The robotic arm has three scientific instruments, the PIXL, SHERLOC and WATSON. PIXL stands for Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry . SHERLOC is an acronym for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals and WATSON represents a Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering . Engineering sense of humor.

PIXL is the main instrument. It points a very narrow X-ray beam at a piece of rock and detects the reflected light (fluorescence ), which is characteristic for the chemical elements in the rock. By analysing this reflected light, PIXL hopes to find biosignatures. Here is an artist impression of PIXL in action.

SHERLOC searches for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life . Its helper Watson will take close-up images of rock grains and surface textures.

Suppose that Perseverance finds promising locations during its traveling. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if scientists on Earth could study the material at these locations in greater detail?

Well, that is exactly the most ambitious part of the Mars 2020 project, to bring back rock and regolith back to Earth. When you are a follower of my blog, you may remember that Hayabusa2 has brought back material from the asteroid Ryugu, and of course moon rocks have been brought back. But never yet material from a planet.

The robotic arm of Perseverance contains a drill, which can collect core samples. Here it is ready to start drilling.

The core sample (comparable in size with a piece of chalk) is put in a sample tube and taken over to the body of the rover where a few measurements are made. Then it is hermetically sealed to avoid any contamination, and temporally stored in a cache container. The container has space for 43 tubes. Here is an example of a sample tube.

Watch the video to follow the complicated process. Three robotics arms are used!.

How to get these sealed tubes back to Earth? NASA and ESA (the European equivalent will work together in what at first sight looks almost like science fiction. Actually it is still partly fiction at the moment! Here is the plan.

In July 2026 (!) a spacecraft will be launched, consisting of a lander and a rover. In August 2028 it will land near the Perseverance.

Here the spacecraft has landed on the surface of Mars, the rover still has to be deployed.

The only function of the rover is to fetch the sample tubes and bring them back to the lander. In this artist impression it is suggested that the sample tubes are scattered around, but that doesn’t make sense to me. Probably Perseverance will have created a few depots, or even kept all tubes in its own storage. The various descriptions I have found on the Internet, are not clear about this. The whole Return Mission is very much work in progress.

Here the tubes are handed over by the “fetch rover” to the lander, where they are put in the Sample Return Container.

The Sample Return Container might look like this. It will be designed so that the temperature of the samples will be less than 30 degrees Celsius.

The container will be loaded in a rocket, the Mars Ascent Vehicle, which will be launched in spring 2029.

The rocket will bring the container in a low Mars orbit and release it there..

In the meantime In October 2026 the Earth Return Orbiter has been launched, it will arrive at Mars in 2027 and lower its orbit gradually to reach the desired altitude in July 2028. There it will wait to pick up the container.

After the Earth Return Orbiter has caught the container, it will “pack” it in the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) and then go back to Earth, where it will arrive in 2031, ten years from now. It is this SRC that will will be released and finally land on Earth.

Here is a simulation of the procedure.

The primary mission of Mars2020 is to determine if Mars was habitable in the past. But there are also secondary missions. On board of the Perseverance there is one experiment, called MOXIE, that will produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere. Just a proof of concept experiment, important for future human missions to Mars.

Quite spectacular is that Perseverance is bringing a small helicopter, the Ingenuity. The Mars atmosphere is thin, but the helicopter should be able to fly. A bit similar to a drone, flying a few meter high, and maximum 50 m away. At the moment it is still hanging under Perseverance, planning is to test it after a few months. Here is an animation

At the moment Perseverance is testing al its components. It has made its first test drive, only a few meters. Here is a picture, you can clearly see the tyre tracks.

If there is more news about the Mars2020 mission, I will update this blog or write a new one.

Let me end this blog with an animation created in 1988 (!) , describing a Sample Return Mission to Mars. Fascinating to watch.