NASA’s most ambitious and expensive mission to the Red Planet, Mars 2020, is scheduled to touch down on its surface Friday (IST). The six-wheeled robot is fast approaching Mars after a seven-month, 470-million-km journey from Earth for what unquestionably will be the most challenging part of its mission.
The mission carries the sophisticated fossil-hunting rover Perseverance, and the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, the first chopper to fly on another planet. Its mission — astrobiological in nature — includes assessing the planet’s habitability and looking for evidence of past or present life by studying biosignatures in the Jezero crater, an ancient lakebed that is believed to have once been filled with liquid water when conditions were more hospitable. Over the course of several years, it will attempt to collect 30 rock and soil samples in sealed tubes, to be eventually sent back to Earth sometime in the 2030s for lab analysis.
The landing process will start at 8.38pm GMT (02.08 am IST on 19 February), when the heat shield capsule housing the spacecraft will enter the atmosphere, and end at 8.55 pm GMT (02.25 am IST) when the rover touches down. The mission’s landing will mimic the “seven minutes of terror” — a name given to the complicated sequence of manoeuvres needed to land on Mars — that the Curiosity lander underwent as it touched down on the Red Planet in 2012.