Nasa’s Perseverance rover will attempt a perilous landing on Mars on Thursday, becoming the latest mission to explore the surface of the Red Planet.
After a journey of 480 million kilometres, the robotic explorer will arrive at Mars – hot on the heels of the UAE's Hope probe – and execute a tricky landing in the planet's Jezero Crater at 12.55am UAE time on Friday.
Nasa will be live-streaming the event on its YouTube channel, with coverage to start at 11.15pm in the UAE on Thursday.
The space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which built the rover, will broadcast an immersive 360-degree-view of their control room for the mission.
Mission timeline: Seven minutes of terror
Cruise stage separation
The spacecraft that has flown Perseverance to the Red Planet will separate from the entry capsule at about 12.38am.
About 10 minutes later, the landing module is expected to hit the top of the Martian atmosphere travelling at about 19,500kph.
Peak heating: In a matter of seconds, atmospheric friction will heat the bottom of the spacecraft to about 1,300°C.
Still travelling at supersonic speed, the spacecraft will release its parachute at about 12.52am, helping to slow its descent.
Heat shield separation
The capsule’s protective heat shield will detach about 20 seconds later, allowing the rover to use radar to determine how far it is from the ground and find a safe landing site.
Back shell separation
The back half of the entry capsule that holds the parachute will separate, leaving the rover and its rocket-powered descent stage to slow down and fly to the landing site.
The rover will be lowered gently down to the surface using a sky crane descent stage. Travelling at human walking speed, the rover is expected to touch down at about 12.55am.
Scientists prepared for ‘most challenging’ landing
With its steep cliffs, sand dunes and boulder fields, the Jezero Crater, which scientists believe may once have been a lake, poses a particular threat to the mission’s success.
"Perseverance is Nasa's most ambitious Mars rover mission yet," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at Nasa headquarters in Washington. "The landing team will have its hands full getting us to Jezero Crater – the most challenging Martian terrain ever targeted for a landing."
Only half the previous attempts to land on Mars were successful, with the high temperatures of re-entry, lower gravity and rough terrain testing spacecraft engineering to its limits.
But despite the scale of the challenge, engineers and scientists at the JPL are hopeful.
Deputy project manager for the mission at JPL, Jennifer Trosper, said: “No Mars landing is guaranteed, but we have been preparing for a decade to put this rover’s wheels down on the surface of Mars and get to work.”
Perseverance will search a particularly ancient area of Mars for evidence of past life, helping to pave the way for future human exploration and even colonisation.
Alongside a suite of advanced sensors and instruments, the rover is also carrying the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, a small craft similar to a drone, that will attempt to carry out the first powered flight on the planet to survey more of its surface.
Perseverance will also collect samples from the Martian surface and eventually return them to Earth for the first time, with the help of a later mission.