Within the Mission Help Space at Lockheed Martin’s campus in Littleton, Colorado, masked folks sat near computer systems, flying three spacecraft in orbit round Mars. These three—the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Maven, and Odyssey—have been all tasked, in a method or one other, with downloading information from one other spacecraft: the Mars Perseverance rover, which was trying to land on the Crimson Planet. Data from these orbiters would assist engineers study Perseverance’s standing because it made its method by way of the environment, and decide whether or not it survived. “House isn’t a spot to go,” learn the phrases painted on one wall. “House is a spot to do.”
Scattered among the many standard notes about unauthorized guests and labeled conferences, indicators about social distancing, masks, and signs have been plastered across the constructing. “No masks with exhaust valves” warned one, aerospacily. One was posted behind the top of Lockheed’s David Scholz, who about an hour earlier than touchdown had been standing in a convention room 6 ft from every part, sporting a blue surgical masks above his double-pocketed tan shirt. NASA’s video feed performed within the background. Scholz had simply described himself as a “assured nervous wreck.” That’s as a result of he’s the principal engineer for a tool known as an “aeroshell,” which cocoons the rover in opposition to essentially the most excessive situations of its downward journey towards the floor of Mars.
The Lockheed engineers had been engaged on this undertaking for years, and at the moment, Scholz and his staff may lastly watch it’s put to make use of. However that’s all they might do: watch. Their system was automated, and would do its job with out them.
And they also watched as a human-made object fell from the sky, aiming to the touch down in a crater known as Jezero. The touchdown, scheduled for 12:55 pm Pacific Time, would mark the top of the Perseverance rover’s journey by way of area and the start of its keep at this desolate vacation spot: a despair that was—billions of years in the past—house to a lake and a river delta. It’s a spot the place life may, theoretically, have as soon as survived.
In search of spots that appear like they may have been amenable to historical life, and proof of potential previous habitation, are among the many Mars 2020 mission’s objectives. The rover may also accumulate and retailer geological samples for a future mission to retrieve, and check out producing oxygen from the planet’s plentiful carbon dioxide, in anticipation of future human astronauts’ wants.
However to get there, the spacecraft needed to survive a harrowing course of that engineers name “entry, descent, and touchdown,” or EDL, which is what the Lockheed Martin staff was now nervously awaiting. These last phases occur throughout what’s been known as (to the purpose of cliché) the “seven minutes of terror”—the time when the spacecraft should autonomously orchestrate its personal E, D, and L with out smashing into the bottom. Throughout its wild journey, the rover would expertise speeds of round 12,100 mph and really feel the equal of 12 occasions Earth’s gravity throughout deceleration. Its protecting sheath would warmth as much as about 2,370 levels Fahrenheit. A lot may go awry: The craft may get too scorching; its bits won’t separate once they have been purported to; even when they did separate accurately, they might “recontact” (learn: hit) one another; Perseverance may land within the incorrect location; it may find yourself making its personal influence crater. Select your personal nightmare.
“The important thing factor about EDL is that every part has to go proper,” Allen Chen of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who leads the EDL staff, had advised me a few weeks earlier than the touchdown. “There’s no partial credit score.”
That one hundred pc, A+ efficiency is what fires up nerves for even the assured engineers right here at Lockheed Martin who labored on the aeroshell. The aeroshell has two components: the warmth protect, which seems to be like a steampunk area frisbee, and the backshell, a basic area capsule. The warmth protect faces down towards the planet when the spacecraft smacks into the environment, taking the enterprise finish of the stress and warmth. It’s created from tiles of a fabric known as PICA, or phenolic-impregnated carbon ablator. “Because it will get scorching, it begins to decompose, and that decomposition absorbs quite a lot of vitality and in addition creates fuel that types a boundary layer that protects the warmth protect from the surroundings,” Scholz had defined forward of the touchdown. The protected protect, in flip, protects its cargo. The machine burns by way of the environment at a tilt, which Scholz calls “an angle of assault,” and steers itself with thrusters.