Last July 30, a satellite carrying a Martian rover left a nation pummeled by COVID-19, political division and unrest.
On Thursday, it is scheduled to land on Mars, delivering a car-sized rover and a nation’s hopes.
While much of the United States was literally digging out of a snow and ice storm like our ancestors did generations ago, a NASA satellite, launched more than seven months ago, was careening toward Mars and a high-anxiety landing scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
Call it the yin and yang of 21st-century technology.
Nearly 300 million miles from Earth, NASA’s Perseverance rover is supposed to land on the Martian surface around 3 p.m. Thursday, using a series of spectacular technologies to slow from a speed of 12,100 mph to about 1.7 mph and, using a “sky crane,” to lower a 2,200-pound, car-sized rover onto a surface full of perils.
So much can go wrong. No wonder NASA scientists are describing the entry, descent and landing process as “seven minutes of terror.”
But the scientific payback from a successful $2.4 billion mission designed to hunt for signs of life on the red planet would be astounding. And the effect on the nation’s psyche, battered by a pandemic, racial unrest, a divisive election campaign and an attack on the U.S. Capitol, cannot be understated.
Ideally, the rover will explore the treacherous surface — full of cliffs, craters, boulders and ancient riverbeds — for a full Martian year of 687 days, gathering rocks and drilling core samples that could prove whether the planet ever supported life. Perseverance also will test whether it’s possible to produce oxygen from the carbon-dioxide Martian atmosphere, thus supporting possible human missions to Mars.
All of those rocks, soils and core samples will be stored on the Martian surface, awaiting retrieval during a future mission, perhaps a joint NASA-European Space Agency operation 10 years from now.
One more exciting breakthrough in Perseverance’s mission: Two microphones onboard will capture the sounds of the breathtaking landing, then help guide the rover in its science investigations.
Here’s hoping Perseverance delivers on all of its promise and brings back good news — because Mars is so far away, it will take 11 minutes to reach Earth — to a nation and a world eager for it.