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NASA’s fifth Mars rover, Perseverance, makes historic landing – Al Jazeera English

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NASA’s science rover Perseverance, the most advanced astrobiology laboratory ever sent to another world, streaked through the Martian atmosphere on Thursday and landed safely on the floor of a vast crater, its first stop on a search for traces of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.

Mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers as radio signals confirmed that the six-wheeled rover had survived its perilous descent and arrived within its target zone inside Jezero Crater, site of a long-vanished Martian lake bed.

The robotic vehicle sailed through space for nearly seven months, covering 472 million km (293 million miles) before piercing the Martian atmosphere at 19,000 km an hour (12,000 miles per hour) to begin its approach to touchdown on the planet’s surface.

The spacecraft’s self-guided descent and landing during a complex series of manoeuvres that NASA dubbed “the seven minutes of terror” stands as the most elaborate and challenging feat in the annals of robotic spaceflight.

“This is a sign: NASA works, NASA works,” Rob Manning, chief engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said moments after the landing. “And we put our arms together, and our hands together, and our brains together, we can succeed. This is what NASA does, this is what we can do as a country.”

The landing represented the riskiest part of two-year, $2.7bn endeavour whose primary aim is to search for possible fossilised signs of microbes that may have flourished on Mars some three billion years ago, when the fourth planet from the sun was warmer, wetter and potentially hospitable to life.

Scientists hope to find biosignatures embedded in samples of ancient sediments that Perseverance is designed to extract from Martian rock for future analysis back on Earth – the first such specimens ever collected by humans from another planet.

Two subsequent Mars missions are planned to retrieve the samples and return them to NASA in the next decade.

Thursday’s landing came as a triumph for a pandemic-weary United States in the grips of economic dislocation caused by the COVID-19 public health crisis.

“What an amazing team to work through all the adversity and challenges that go with landing a rover on Mars, plus the challenges of COVID,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

Search for ancient life

NASA scientists have described Perseverance as the most ambitious of nearly 20 US missions to Mars dating back to the Mariner spacecraft’s 1965 fly-by.

Larger and packed with more instruments than the four Mars rovers preceding it, Perseverance is set to build on previous findings that liquid water once flowed on the Martian surface and that carbon and other minerals altered by water and considered precursors to the evolution of life were present.

Perseverance’s payload also includes demonstration projects that could help pave the way for eventual human exploration of Mars, including a device to convert the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into pure oxygen.

The box-shaped tool, the first built to extract a natural resource of direct use to humans from an extraterrestrial environment, could prove invaluable for future human life support on Mars and for producing rocket propellant to fly astronauts home.

Another experimental prototype Perseverance carried is a miniature helicopter designed to test the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. If successful, the 1.8-kg (four-pound) helicopter could lead to low-altitude aerial surveillance of distant worlds, officials said.

The daredevil nature of the rover’s descent to the Martian surface, at a site that NASA described as both tantalising to scientists and especially hazardous for landing, was a momentous achievement in itself.

The multi-stage spacecraft carrying the rover soared into the top of Martian atmosphere at nearly 16 times the speed of sound on Earth, angled to produce aerodynamic lift while jet thrusters adjusted its trajectory.

A jarring, supersonic parachute inflation further slowed the descent, giving way to deployment of a rocket-powered “sky crane” vehicle that flew to a safe landing spot, lowered the rover on tethers, then flew off to crash a safe distance away.

Perseverance’s immediate predecessor, the rover Curiosity, landed in 2012 and remains in operation, as does the stationary lander InSight, which arrived in 2018 to study the deep interior of Mars.

Last week, separate probes launched by the United Arab Emirates and China reached Martian orbit. NASA has three Mars satellites still in orbit, along with two from the European Space Agency.

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Sudbury native aiding NASA rover's hunt for life on Mars – The Sudbury Star

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Raymond Francis hopes to become a Canadian Space Agency astronaut

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The NASA rover mission scouring Mars for ancient life has a connection to Sudbury.

Raymond Francis, who graduated from Western University in 2014 with a PhD in computer engineering and planetary science, is an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Francis, whose aspirations include becoming a Canadian Space Agency astronaut — maybe even one of the first on the red planet — is part of the team helping guide the rover Perseverance through Mars’s Jezero crater, which scientists say was a lake 3.5 billion years ago.

It is the first time a Mars rover will be collecting rock and soil, which will be stored until they can be returned to Earth.

“If ever there was life on Mars, this is the time it may well have arisen,” Francis said. “We would be elated if we found signs of ancient life on Mars. No one is expecting current life, but we explicitly have a goal of finding signs of life.”

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Jezero, which means lake in Slavic languages, is named after a settlement.

“The lake was there for a long time, because the river flowing into had enough time to build up a delta, the kind you find at the mouth of the Mississippi or the Nile,” Francis said.

Sudbury native Raymond Francis, who graduated from Western in 2014 with a PhD in computer engineering and planetary science, and will be helping guide the rover Perseverance during its time on Mars.
Sudbury native Raymond Francis, who graduated from Western in 2014 with a PhD in computer engineering and planetary science, and will be helping guide the rover Perseverance during its time on Mars. SunMedia

“Deltas are also a good place to preserve signs of life, because they are constantly setting down new sediment. If there are living things in that lake, they can get buried in the sediment and preserved.”

But even if they don’t find life, the research into Mars’s environment, history and evolution would be incredibly valuable, he said.

“Any lake like this on Earth 3.5 billion years ago was probably full of microbes,” Francis said. “If this one on Mars was not, it tells us something about the difference between these two planets, regardless of life.”

While noisy and chaotic, Perseverance’s landing last Thursday — NASA shared video online — “worked out almost perfectly,” he said.

“People have put a lot of their life into this for the last decade and a lot of things had to go right for that landing to succeed …,” Francis said. “(At) each critical juncture, you could see people getting more hopeful.”

Now that Perseverance has landed, Francis’s work begins.

As science engineering liaison, he helps co-ordinate discussions of what the science team wants to do.

“They might be what observations to make, which experiments to run, where to drive the rover to make our next studies,” he said.

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The rover is “greatly improved” from its predecessor, Curiosity.

“It looks a lot like Curiosity rover, but it is not,” Francis said. “We have greatly improved capabilities and our autonomous driving system is much improved. We’ll be able to drive farther and faster.”

Francis also be part of operating its artificial intelligence system.

“I’m am going to have a role in deploying that software and making sure it gives us good science data,” he said.

Francis also runs a “supercam,” or laser geochemical spectrometer, he said.

Their work is being done on “Mars time,” where a day last 24 hours and 38 minutes and scientists will give up regular sleep cycles to use every second.

“The rover works best during the day on Mars, so we can spend less energy on heating because the sun is up and we can easily take pictures,” he said.

Rock and other samples collected by the rover will be retrieved, he said, likely in two missions in the early 2030s: one to land, pick up samples and lift them into orbit; another to carry them from Mars to Earth.

In earlier interviews, Francis said Sudbury and Science North helped shape his interest in science and space.

Francis told Tilbury District High School students in southern Ontario a few years ago about an encounter that changed his life.

“Probably the first time that happened to me was when I was … [in] first grade,” Francis said. “I grew up in Sudbury and there was a place there called Science North, a public science centre. And they had Bob Thirsk – a Canadian astronaut … and he came by with an American astronaut who had already flown. And they gave this presentation about ‘look, this is what it’s like to operate a space shuttle.’”

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“I still have the little poster he signed,” Francis added.

Thirsk would later become the first Canadian to fly at length in the International Space Station, in 2009.

Earlier this year, he told Quirks & Quarks, a science show on CBC Radio, that living in Sudbury in some ways helped prepare him for this Mars mission.

“You’re from Sudbury, which is a big mining town,” Quirks & Quarks asked. “And after building a career in robotics and space science, you’ve been led back to rocks. They’re just rocks on another world.”

“That’s right,” Francis replied. “And honestly, during my PhD studies in how to teach computers to look at rocks, I spent some time up in Sudbury looking at those. The mines in Sudbury are the results of an ancient impact crater that’s not quite as old as Jezero, but the impact geology is a very good analogue for the types of large scale impact sites we find in craters on Mars.

“So going home to Sudbury was actually a very useful thing for getting prepared for these kinds of studies on Mars.

HRivers@postmedia.com

Twitter: @SudburyStar

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Prairie fireball was comet fragment burning up in Earth's atmosphere – CBC.ca

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The fireball that lit up the sky across the Prairies on Monday morning was a small piece of a comet that burned up in the atmosphere, researchers at the University of Alberta say.

“Using two observation sites, we were able to calculate both its trajectory and velocity, which tell us about the origin of the meteor and reveal that it was a piece of a comet,” Patrick Hill, post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, said in a news release Thursday.

“This chunk was largely made of dust and ice, burning up immediately without leaving anything to find on the ground — but instead giving us a spectacular flash.”

The flash, captured by dozens of doorbell cameras and dashcams, occurred at 6:23 a.m. local time as the debris streaked through the sky to a final point on its trajectory 120 kilometres north of Edmonton, the researchers said.

The flash was visible throughout Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan due to the unusually high altitude of the fireball, they said.

WATCH | Fireball flashes across the Prairie sky:

A fireball buzzed over the Prairies on Monday, temporarily piercing the dark of the early morning sky with a flash of blinding blue light. 0:48

The chunk, likely only tens of centimetres across in size, was travelling at more than 220,000 km/h when it entered the atmosphere, they said.

“This incredible speed and the orbit of the fireball tell us that the object came at us from way out at the edge of the solar system — telling us it was a comet, rather than a relatively slower rock coming from the asteroid belt,” Chris Herd, curator of the University of Alberta Meteorite Collection and science professor, said in the release.

“Comets are made up of dust and ice and are weaker than rocky objects, and hitting our atmosphere would have been like hitting a brick wall for something travelling at this speed,” Herd said.

‘This is an incredible mystery to have solved’

While rocky objects usually burn up between 15 to 20 kilometres above the ground, Monday’s fireball occurred at an altitude of 46 kilometres allowing the flash to be seen across a wide area.

“All meteoroids — objects that become meteors once they enter Earth’s atmosphere — enter at the same altitude and then start to burn up with friction,” Hill said.

“Sturdier, rocky meteoroids can sometimes survive to make it to the ground, but because this was going so fast and was made of weaker material, it flashed out much higher in the atmosphere and was visible from much farther away.”

The research team calculated the trajectory of the fireball by using dark-sky images captured at the Hesje Observatory at the Augustana Miquelon Lake Research Station and at Lakeland College’s observation station in Vermilion, Alta., the release said. 

“This is an incredible mystery to have solved,” Herd said. “We’re thrilled that we caught it on two of our cameras, which could give everyone who saw this amazing fireball a solution.”

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'Forward edge of human exploration': Victoria company helps design piece of NASA Mars rover – CTV Edmonton

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VICTORIA —
When NASA’s six-wheeled Perseverance rover touched down on the red soil of Mars, ground control teams in California leapt to their feet in unbridled enthusiasm. But they weren’t the only ones bursting with joy.

North of the border on Vancouver Island, a team of mechanical engineers and metal workers were overwhelmed with their work landing on the red planet.

“A lot of the guys were watching the landing on their computers as it came down, going through the countdown. So, there was a lot of excitement,” said Ron Sivorot, Kennametal Inc. Langford Site business director.

Inside Kennametal Inc. in Greater Victoria, teams of metal workers and mechanical engineers design a variety of custom products for businesses around the world.

Last Thursday, however, was the first time a partnership had taken the Vancouver Island business into orbit.

In 2014 the company began a partnership with NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory to help design and build a drill bit capable of tearing into the harsh and unknown soil of Mars.

“We specifically made a tooth blank for a core bit drill,” said Sivorot. “So basically, that is the business end of the drill that basically drills into Mars.”

The company has a specific skillset with the material tungsten carbide.

It’s an incredibly hard metal known for its use in harsh climates.

Staff at the Langford operation helped create a blank drill bit tip which NASA then put the final touches on before mounting to the car-sized rover.

Perseverance touched down in dramatic fashion on Mars last week and almost immediately began its work of taking core samples.

NASA hopes that drilling into the ground of Mars could uncover galactic mysterious about the planet and possibly uncover life on another planet.

Commander Chris Hadfield is no stranger to Canadian contributions to space exploration.

The Toronto-based astronaut was the first Canadian to walk in space and has served as the commander of the International Space Station.

He says each time Canada is represented in the cosmos, it dares us all to dream bigger.

“There is a great sense of contributing to something important that is bigger than yourself,” said Col. Hadfield from his Toronto home.

“For the folks at Kennametal, they are doing a great job, they make a great product. Their tungsten carbide is twice as hard as steel, but that little thing they work on, that they take daily pride in, is now right on the very forward edge of human exploration,” he said.

Over the next two years, the rover will use its two-meter arm to drill down and collect rock samples containing possible signs of bygone microscopic life.

Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside to be retrieved eventually by another rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship.

The goal is to get them back to Earth as early as 2031. 

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