FEB. 18, 2021–After a near-perfect entry, descent, and landing, the Perseverance rover successfully touched down today in Jezero Crater at 12:55 p.m., PST. Perseverance landed just 1.7 kilometers from the center of its landing zone, with many of the new landing systems, such as terrain-relative navigation, working flawlessly.
The rover landed at 18.44 degrees North, 77.45 degrees East on Mars, inside the vast Jezero Crater near an ancient river delta remnant. Perseverance’s landing spot was very flat and the rover settled at a tilt of only 1.2 degrees. The accuracy with which the rover landed, dodging a minefield of surface obstacles along the way, was only possible due to the terrain-relative navigation implemented for the first time. Allen Chen, leader of the entry, landing, and descent team said that “The terrain relative navigation managed to find us a safe spot, in the midst of areas that could kill us on landing. The system was essential on getting us down.”
Perseverance’s landing follows a calm, months-long cruise, and a decade-long arduous development phase on the ground impacted heavily by the COVID pandemic. “Everything went pretty much according to plan,” NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk stated at a press conference. Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, Science Mission Directorate assoc. admin., celebrated the launch by tearing apart the failure contingency plans live at the same press conference. “It’s truly exciting now that we’re on the ground,” said planetary science division head Lori Glaze. All around, the landing was most certainly a success.
To get to this point, NASA employees had to endure an incredibly difficult work environment with the COVID-19 pandemic. Matt Wallace, deputy project manager of the Mars 2020 mission, said that “The pandemic struck at just about the worst time. We’d just shipped the vehicle down to KSC. We had to figure out how many people could stand around the rover, how close they could be in the cleanroom. We had people who had to travel to JPL and we couldn’t do so commercially, so NASA Armstrong gave us a jet. Very challenging time.” In order to commemorate the team’s efforts through the pandemic, a COVID plaque was placed on Perseverance, which followed the rover to Jezero Crater.
As for what’s immediately next for Perseverance, the timeline is still quite rough. Overflights from the Trace Gas Orbiter and Odyssey are expected within the coming hours, which will relay much of the initial data from Perseverance. Much of the data is expected to trickle in overnight as it is sent through the orbiters from the rover’s low-gain UHF antenna. Tomorrow, which will be designated Sol 1 (a Sol is a Martian day) for Perseverance, the team plans to deploy and aim the high-gain antenna at Earth, in an attempt to communicate directly instead of via orbiter. Sol 2 will have mast deployment, with the first color panoramas, and MastCam-Z tests on Sol 3. Sol 4 will be the beginning of loading new software for Perseverance – expected to take four days. The imagery and video from the many entry, descent, and landing cameras, as well as the first direct microphone recordings of Mars, is expected to trickle in within this timeframe, with the first photos coming tomorrow. Both will provide never-before-seen perspectives of the Red Planet.
After that initial period, the rover will continue to complete checkouts, deploy its arm, conduct a 5 meter test drive, and whatever else is needed. Once that process, expected to take 30 sols total, is complete, Perseverance will drive to the helicopter deployment site. According to Jennifer Trosper, a deputy project manager, “Depending on how close that site is, it’ll take up to 10 sols to get there. We’ll spend 30 sols for the helicopter demo. It will also take 10 sols to deploy the helicopter (located on Perseverance’s underside) and to drive away.”
Trosper continued, saying “We’ll be flying the helicopter in the spring here, and after that, we’ll drive towards the first science site and do the first sampling. Summer is the time frame, might be faster, might be slower.” She also mentioned the solar conjunction in September – in which the Sun passes directly in front of Mars, obscuring Earth-Mars communications for the month. After the conjunction, JPL plans to submit software to the rover to make it even more autonomous
Now that Perseverance is safe on Mars, as Jurczyk quipped, “Didn’t get much sleep last night, but I’ll get a lot this night.” And as for what mission comes next after Perseverance? Dr. Zurbuchen hinted at it, by saying “Very exciting we just embarked on Chapter 1 of Mars Sample Return, for real.”
Congratulations to the Perseverance team. To keep up with the rover, you can check its location here, its latest images here, and its latest recordings here. A conference is also scheduled for 10 a.m. PST, tomorrow morning, to discuss the overnight results. Go Mars 2020!