NASA's Perseverance rover hits halfway point on journey to Mars
NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover has officially reached the halfway mark in its marathon journey to reach the Red Planet, after travelling 146 million miles through the vacuum of space. The robotic explorer is set to rendezvous with Mars and attempt a perilous descent through the thin atmosphere on February 18th, 2021.
On the 30th of July, NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on a mission to search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet – utilizing a cutting-edge suite of scientific instruments.
Its eventual destination is Jezero Crater, the site of an ancient lake located just north of the Martian equator. Perseverance will be accompanied, both in transit and on its mission to scout the alien terrain, by NASA’s Mars Helicopter. If all goes to plan, the latter is set to be the first aircraft to undertake a controlled flight above the surface of another world.
Of course, before it can attempt a controlled landing on the barren surface, both the rover and its helicopter companion must endure a journey of millions of miles through the hostile environment of interplanetary space. At 1:40 pm Pacific Time on October 27th, the two robotic explorers finally passed the midway point of their journey, having traveled an impressive 146.3 million miles from the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
"Although we're halfway into the distance we need to travel to Mars, the rover is not halfway between the two worlds," explains Julie Kangas, a member of the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. "In straight-line distance, Earth is 26.6 million miles (42.7 million km) behind Perseverance and Mars is 17.9 million miles (28.8 million km) in front."
Along the way, with the help of the array of powerful radio antennas that form NASA’s Deep Space Network, the mission team has been keeping in regular contact with the rover, checking up on its many systems and those of the Mars Helicopter. As it stands, the instruments are all in good shape.
"If it is part of our spacecraft and electricity runs through it, we want to confirm it is still working properly following launch," comments deputy chief engineer of the Mars exploration mission, Keith Comeaux. "Between these checkouts – along with charging the rover's and Mars Helicopter's batteries, uploading files and sequences for surface operations, and planning for and executing trajectory correction maneuvers – our plate is full right up to landing."
At its current distance from Earth, it takes roughly 2 minutes and 20 seconds for a signal from Earth to reach the rover. By the time it reaches Mars, this delay is expected to increase to roughly 11 minutes and 30 seconds.
Because of the communication lag, it is impossible to manually control the rover during descent. Therefore, the team will have to endure a brutally tense period as the next generation of Mars explorer is (hopefully) autonomously lowered safely to the surface, guided by pre-uploaded commands and cutting-edge technology.
Thankfully, there are still several months and 146 million miles between the Perseverance rover and its rendezvous with the Martian atmosphere. Until then, space enthusiasts can keep track of Perseverance’s journey to the Red Planet with the help of NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System app.