NAMIBIANS like millions of other people will wait with bated breath to see If the Perseverance robotic rover will make a successful landing on the surface in March.
The landing will take place in about 30 minutes and a live feed with commentary from the mission control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California in the United States of America.
The country’s stake in mankind’s latest project to land and explore another planet comes from Namibia’s own space scientist, the late Dr. Japie Van Zyl that was intimately involved in the planning of the Mars mission as well the design of the little drone helicopter that is accompanying the biggest rover to be sent to the red planet on a scientific mission.
The drone helicopter will be the first powered aircraft to fly in the thin atmosphere of the Earth’s neighbouring planet.
Perseverance is a six-wheeled, SUV-sized vehicle with the most sophisticated robotic astrobiology lab ever launched and an experimental aerial drone aboard, is at the heart of the Mars 2020 mission. It blasted off in July on a 469-million-kilometre journey.
The success of the landing depends on what space engineers call the “seven minutes of terror” while the spacecraft goes through the entry, descent and landing, or EDL, sequence that must be completed flawlessly and without intervention from Earth-bound engineers.
Because Mars is so far away, it takes 11 minutes for signals to reach NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, from where the mission is managed. That means by the time engineers get a message from the spacecraft that EDL has begun, Perseverance will already be on the ground.
Scientists have chosen Jezero Crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia to land the rover. Unlike Curiosity and other earlier rover missions, Perseverance will use something called Terrain Relative Navigation to find a good spot and steer itself in for a touchdown.
The Mars Helicopter, known as Ingenuity, has created the biggest bulk of the excitement associated with the ambitious project.
Engineers hope that Ingenuity’s 1.2 metre long rotors, spinning five times faster than the blades of a helicopter on Earth, coupled with the low Martian gravity, will help get it off the ground.
Like the first powered flight on Earth, Ingenuity’s first flight, scheduled for a few days after the landing, will be short and close to the ground. If all goes well, a series of progressively more ambitious flights are planned over a 30-Martian-day period.
“The Ingenuity Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration,” NASA says. “If the small craft encounters difficulties, the science-gathering of the Mars 2020 mission won’t be impacted. If the helicopter does take flight as designed, future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their exploration missions.
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