Mars is having quite the moment.
The red planet is easy to see this month because it shines brightly high in the sky at sundown and doesn’t set until after midnight. What’s most interesting, though, is that Mars is being visited by several spacecraft launched by agencies here on Earth.
The most exciting mission is NASA’s Perseverance rover, which will land on Mars on February 18 -- and you can watch the landing as it happens on NASA’s YouTube channel.
Mars, the fourth planet from the sun, has a blood-red color, which explains why the ancient Greeks named the planet “Ares” -- after their god of war -- and why the Romans also named the planet after their god of war, “Mars.” The Egyptians called Mars “Her Desher,” or “the red one,” while ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Korean astronomers all called the planet “the fire star.”
There’s a simple explanation why Mars appears red. Its surface is covered in dust and rock that has a high degree of iron. As the iron minerals oxidize, or rust, they become red, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology explained.
Since 1960, humanity has launched dozens of missions to Mars. And while it’s now recognized that Mars doesn’t have vegetation and no longer appears to have water, it still appeals to scientists.
“We understand Mars to a degree that we have not even come close to on any other planets or moons,” Erika Harnett, a professor at the University of Washington, said in a Space.com article. “I think what gets a lot of scientists excited is no different than what gets the public excited: The idea of when can we send people there, and can we find life on Mars?”
Until this week, only four space agencies have successfully completed Mars missions: NASA, the former Soviet Union space program, the European Space Agency, and the Indian Space Research.
Now, two other agencies have joined the list. Early last week, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Probe reached Mars and began its orbit. The next day, China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft also reached Mars and began its orbit. The Chinese probe includes both an orbiter and a lander with a rover onboard -- and plans call for an attempted landing in May.
Then there’s NASA, which has sent dozens of missions to Mars. Its Mariner 4, for example, performed a “flyby” of Mars in July of 1965. Other missions include the Viking Orbiters, which found evidence that water may have carved large features on Mars, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum explained. NASA’s Curiosity rover has even been on Mars for more than 3,000 days -- and is still exploring.
Since 2006, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been taking pictures of Mars’ surface, subsurface, and atmosphere using a special camera called HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment).
“Seven Minutes Of Terror”
Now, after a 300-million-mile trip that took nearly 7 months, NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is set to land on Mars on Thursday, February 18. Once it lands at Jezero Crater, Perseverance will begin a 2-year mission to “seek signs of ancient life and demonstrate technologies for making oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, provide surface weather updates, and demonstrate the first controlled, powered flight on another planet with the Ingenuity helicopter,” NASA said.
But first, Perseverance has to land on Mars.
Here’s why the teams at NASA call the entry, descent, and landing of spacecraft on Mars “seven minutes of terror.” It takes 7 minutes for a lander to get from the top of Mars’ atmosphere -- going 13,000 miles per hour -- to the surface. However, since it also takes about 10.5 minutes for radio signals to travel from Earth to Mars, once NASA teams tell the spacecraft to begin entry, descent, and landing, the spacecraft takes over on its own -- with no help or intervention.
“I don't think I’m exaggerating when I say that entry, descent, and landing is the most critical and most dangerous part of a mission,” Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent, and landing lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in a recent news conference. “Success is never assured, and that’s especially true when we’re trying to land the biggest, heaviest, and most complicated rover we’ve ever built in the most dangerous site we’ve ever attempted to land in.”
This animation from NASA shows what the Perseverance landing should look like if all goes well.
How You Can Watch
On February 18, you can watch the Perseverance rover’s entry, descent, and landing on Mars on NASA’s YouTube channel. The live broadcast is scheduled for 11:15 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.
In the meantime, you can learn more about the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover here.
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