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Nasa Perseverance mission to leave Indian footprint on Mars | India News – Times of India


MUMBAI: Nasa’s Perseverance mission to Mars, which launched on Thursday at 5.21pm (IST), will leave an Indian footprint on the Red Planet when it touches down at the Jezero crater on February 18, 2021. Not that an Indian astronaut is on board the spacecraft. But Bengaluru-born scientist Swati Mohan of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has played a major part in designing and developing a new landing technology called Terrain Relative Navigation, which will make the touchdown less hazardous.
The landing, known as “Seven Minutes of Terror”, is a nail-biting and nerve-wracking moment for all those involved in the entry, descent and landing of Perseverance, including Swati. While entering the Martian atmosphere from a whopping 12,000kmph, the speed of Perseverance has to drop to 0 in a short span of seven minutes in which several things in the rover have to work flawlessly in quick succession.
The mission has four main objectives —geological exploration of an ancient environment of Mars, understanding habitability and seeking evidence of past life, readying a returnable cache of samples, and preparing for human exploration.
In an email interview to TOI, Swati explained that the new Terrain Relative Navigation system will allow Perseverance to be the first rover to land with open eyes. “This is analogous to putting your hands out in front and stopping when you feel the ground. Previous missions have relied on radar to land,” she said.
Swati said that the advantage of this new technology is that there is a camera that will take pictures of the ground as Perseverance descends on the parachute. “This allows Perseverance to look at the ground, compare it to an on-board map and figure out where it is. This is analogous to a person looking at a set of street signs and comparing the street signs to a map to figure out where they are,’’ she said.
According to her, the new system will allow landing in between the hazards on the surfaces, which are scientifically interesting places. “The Terrain Relative Navigation added a second brain to Perseverance,’’ she said, while pointing out that it was tested in a realistic environment over the desert in California.
Swati said that Perseverance’s entry, descent and landing system has four new technologies compared to its predecessor Curiosity. Aside from Terrain Relative Navigation, the other new technologies are Range Trigger, MEDLI2 and a new set of cameras.
She explained that the cameras are commercially developed. “But if they work as expected, we should be able to watch a Mars landing like never before. There is even a microphone on board, so we hope to also hear a Mars landing for the first time.”
Asked why Nasa chose a landing zone, which is hazardous with steep slopes and rocks, she said it was specifically chosen because the Perseverance science team believes that this ancient river delta could have collected and preserved the signs of microbial life, if they were ever there.
“Jezero crater was proposed for previous Mars rover missions but had to be eliminated because it was deemed too risky for the rover. Fortunately, Perseverance is the first rover to have the Terrain Relative Navigation technology that enables it to avoid the hazardous terrain and land safely,’’ Swati said.
About her Indian connections, she said she was born in Bengalaru. Though she emigrated to the US, she said both she and her family still have a lot of extended family in India, mostly concentrated in Bengalaru.
Apart from Swati, there are other Indian connections with this mission too. For instance, Bob Balaram, a graduate from IIT-Madras, is the chief engineer for the Ingenuity helicopter, which is being flown to Mars in Perseverance. The helicopter, a technology demonstrator, will create the Wright Brothers moment on Mars if it operates successfully 60 or 90 days after the Perseverance landing. It will be the first aircraft to fly on Mars.
Even Parag Vaishampayan and Prabhakar Misra, both originally from India, are involved with the astrobiology aspect of the mission.
Among those who congratulated Nasa was Isro scientific secretary R Umamaheshwaran, who said: “The mission will make history in Mars exploration as it will contribute to humanity’s search for a home away from our Planet Earth.”

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