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Perseverance rover begins approach to Mars atmosphere

The NASA Mars rover Perseverance has the most sophisticated technology ever sent to Mars, as depicted in this illustration of the rover with its helicopter, Ingenuity. Image courtesy of NASA
The NASA Mars rover Perseverance has the most sophisticated technology ever sent to Mars, as depicted in this illustration of the rover with its helicopter, Ingenuity. Image courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 16 (UPI) -- NASA's newest Mars rover, Perseverance, is in good shape and has begun programming and preparation for its descent to the Red Planet surface Thursday.

The entry, descent and landing -- a seven minute process -- is to begin about 3:55 p.m. EST. During that time, NASA has no ability to control or change anything happening.

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"I can tell you that Perseverance is operating perfectly right now, and that all systems are go for landing," said Jennifer Trosper, a NASA deputy project manager for the rover mission, during a press briefing Tuesday.

Hundreds of technicians and engineers at NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Deep Space Network for communications will eagerly await the first communications from Mars after the rover lands, Trosper said.

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Those teams will focus on what NASA calls precision landing technology, which will help the rover navigate the rocky, rough terrain at its landing site in Jezero Crater.

NASA selected that location because it was an ancient lakebed, where the rover will hunt for signs of past life on the planet.

While Jezero is ideal for science, it is the most hazardous landing site ever attempted for such a mission, said Trudy Kortes, director of space technology demonstrations. Perseverance's landing technology was built upon a similar system used by the rover Curiosity in 2012.

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But Perseverance has upgrades, including sturdier wheels to roll over the rocky crater valley and its rim, NASA officials said.

"The new, really quite extraordinary capability provides both hazard avoidance, and precision landing at a site that's determined autonomously by the spacecraft called terrain relative navigation," Kortes said. "It's a critical part of operations."

As the rover descends under parachutes, cameras will snap photos of an area equal to about 120 football fields, searching for the safest landing site. Software on Perseverance will then compare those photos to maps it has stored in its memory.

"We asked the question, what could kill us on landing day?" said Erisa Stilley, Perseverance entry, descent and landing systems engineer.

"There are rocks that are strewn throughout the desert, a crater to the southwest and sand dunes to the east and a beautiful river delta which is like a 250-foot cliff, and we certainly don't want to land on that."

Stilley noted that the images and sounds recorded by the rover during landing will be sent back to Earth.

"The video camera suite that we've also got on board ... will have been taking some amazing photos during those seven terrifying, or exciting minutes, and will give us some images like we've never seen before," she said.

The rover will send quick "pings" or signals upon landing to verify if it is healthy. During its mission, some telemetry also will be processed by NASA's MAVEN orbiter, which has been circling Mars since it arrived in 2014 to study the atmosphere.

But nothing is certain about the mission, which was launched from Florida in July, the NASA teams noted Tuesday.

"One example is if something went wrong with the main computer," Kortes said. "It could take up to a week for the rover to go through all actions that it is programmed to do to reboot."

Exploration of Mars through history

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used two different cameras to create this panoramic selfie, comprised of 60 images, in front of Mont Mercou, a rock outcrop that stands 20 feet tall on March 26, 2021, the 3,070th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. These were combined with 11 images taken by the Mastcam on the mast, or "head," of the rover on March 16. The hole visible to the left of the rover is where its robotic drill sampled a rock nicknamed "Nontron." The Curiosity team is nicknaming features in this part of Mars using names from the region around the village of Nontron in southwestern France. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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