Commentary by Greg McCauley
On Feb. 18, NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on the Martian surface, and due to the vast distance between our two planets, Mission Control had no clue whether it succeeded or failed until 11 minutes after the fact. Perseverance Rover will now explore Jezero Crater, a former Martian lake bed that may be home to fossilized remains of ancient life. But it had to stick the landing first.
The entry, descent and landing phase was a harrowing experience NASA calls the “seven minutes of terror.” It started when the spacecraft entered the Martian upper atmosphere at a blazing 12,500 mph, five times faster than the fastest bullet on earth. The Rover was protected by a heat shield and aeroshell, as well as a suite of 28 sensors that monitored the hot gases and winds. Temperatures peaked at a punishing 2,400 degrees as it blazed across the Martian sky like a meteor. About four minutes later and 7 miles above the surface, still hurtling to the ground at a supersonic 940 mph, the heat shield separated and the rover deployed a parachute 69 feet in diameter, the largest ever developed on earth.
At a mile-and-a-half above the surface, the parachute separated from the Rover, and it headed directly for the ground. The descent stage then used its thrusters to find a safe spot at its drop location, and slowed the Rover down to a mere 1.7 mph. Four nylon cords on the descent stage then lowered the Rover to the ground from 66 feet in the air, and when the Rover gently touched the surface, the cords were severed and the descent stage flew away to crash into the Martian landscape a safe distance away. And all of this was done automatically, pre-programmed months before, while Mission Control watched and waited.
And if all of this is not impressive enough, the Mars helicopter “Ingenuity,” which is attached to the belly of the Rover, checked in at Mission Control on Feb. 19, the day after it landed, and reported that it was ready and willing to fly. It will take about 30 to 60 days to get everything ready, then you can watch the historic event broadcast live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.
The scientists, engineers and technicians at NASA have shown us once again that when you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, absolutely anything is possible.
Aliens have landed on Mars – and it is us. Now, we’re ready to fly the Martian skies.
Greg McCauley, a Westfield resident, is president and CEO of Grand Universe and an amateur astronomer and former NASA employee during the Apollo moon missions.