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Dr. Debiprosad Duari : Director, Research and Academic at M. P. Birla Institute Of Fundamental Research. Kolkata, 20th. February, 2021. I personally pay my respect and regards for multitudes of scientists, engineers, associates and NASA for an unique event in the history of human endeavour in technology, which is going to happen tonight. At around 2:25 a.m. (IST) on 19th February (Friday), a spacecraft named Perseverance will try to land on Mars at a site named as Jezero Crater. This crater, 49 km. in diameter, is believed to be a remnant of a old lake which was filled with water millions of years ago. Not only that, a successful landing of this 1025 kg spacecraft will also usher in an era of flights in the thin Martian atmosphere. The Perseverance spacecraft is carrying a 1.8 kg drone helicopter which has been aptly named as Ingenuity. Once deployed around 19th March, it will try to perform five test flights, within a period of a month, hovering above the surface at heights of 10-11 ft, up to a distance of 50 mts, lasting at the most 90 seconds. If successful, this technology demonstration flight will open up new frontiers of planetary exploration, both robotic and human controlled.

From the time of entry of the landing capsule in the upper atmosphere of Mars to its touchdown, through processes which are unique and pathbreaking, Perseverance will take 7 minutes. But, the distance of the spacecraft from the Earth around that time will be 204 million kms, and any signal sent by the scientists at the NASA control centre will take 11 minutes to reach it. So, systems are on board to guide the spacecraft towards its own successful descent with the help of Terrain Relative Navigation and Range Trigger mechanism, which will direct the system to first jettison the parachute for possible closest landing to site originally chosen and also to direct the sky crane to lower the spacecraft at a place free of rocks and undulations. That is the reason, the scientists have described the descent period of Perseverance as “seven minutes of terror”, when they will not be able to guide the process at the most crucial phase of the mission.

Perseverance is unique. Though for more than two decades spacecraft and rovers have landed on the Red planet and sent back enormous amount of valuable data, yet, this time it is a little different with Perseverance. Perseverance with its 23 cameras, two microphones and a suite of advanced instruments will investigate upon detailed geology of Mars, current and past presence of water, internal structure of the planet, identification of minerals and rocks on the surface and characterize the environment and atmosphere of Mars. But the most important aspect of this mission is its objective to perform as an astrobiology laboratory. One of its instruments, MOXIE will try to produce oxygen from the prevalently carbon dioxide composition of its atmosphere. If successful, this will open up a new horizon of manned mission to Mars and its successful return to earth using thus produced oxygen as fuel for the return flight. Perseverance is unique, because for the first time, the mission is focussed on the issues of supporting human explorers and identification of possible life support systems for extended stay. The global community is anxiously waiting for the mission to be successful, so that it opens a new window of planetary travel and ultimately colonization of a planetary system other than Earth. Though it is a NASA project, yet, the instruments have come from international collaborations with institutes and universities of different countries. India on its own is planning to send the Mangalyaan 2 mission within couple of years which also will carry a lander and a rover. So, the hope is, with the global effort to know more about Mars, one day, humans will not only journey to our neighbouring planet but also will inhabit it.

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