NASA Mars Rover set for touchdown on Red Planet

Space scientists around the world will hold their breath on Thursday as NASA’s latest mission to Mars attempts a daring landing on the Red Planet.

After launching in July last year, the Mars 2020 mission has spent almost seven months en route to Earth’s closest planetary neighbour, with atmospheric entry, descent and landing in the so-called ‘seven minutes of terror’ scheduled for just before 9.00pm GMT this Thursday, 18 February.

And there will be a vested interested for Leicester, too, with Mars 2020’s Perseverance Rover carrying the MOXIE instrument developed by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) including Professor Jeff Hoffman, veteran of five Space Shuttle missions and Visiting Professor to Leicester’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment – or MOXIE – seeks to produce pure oxygen from naturally-occurring carbon dioxide found in the Martian atmosphere through a process called solid oxide electrolysis.

If successful, it is hoped that the technology could be scaled up to supply future astronauts with vital supplies while on the surface of Mars.

Professor Hoffman told a Live Q&A with the National Space Centre earlier this year:

“Our experiment is the one experiment on the Perseverance Rover that is not really there to study Mars, but to learn how to use resources for eventual human exploration.

“Mars atmosphere is only about one hundredth or one per cent the thickness of Earth’s atmosphere, and it’s about 95 per cent carbon dioxide. We collect that, compress it, and put it into an electrolysis unit in a similar way to high school chemistry with electrolysis of water.

“If we could make 30 tonnes of oxygen on Mars, rather than have to bring it all the way from Earth then we’d be saving a lot of expense and risk, as well.”

Professor Hoffman joined the University’s Space Research Group (SRG) in 1978 after gaining a PhD from Harvard and meeting with Professor Ken Pounds, Director of the SRG.

During his time in Leicester – when he also met his future wife Barbara – work on both the Skylark rocket and ESA X-ray Astronomy projects allowed Professor Hoffman to ‘cut his teeth’ in space science, before returning to his native USA to join the NASA Astronaut Corps and eventually spending 1,000 hours in space.

Now Professor of Human Spaceflight at MIT, he remains in regular contact with Leicester and continues to inspire the next generation of space scientists.

During landing, the Perseverance Rover and lightweight Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere at more than 12,000mph (about 20,000kph) before a parachute and powered descent slows the spacecraft to about 2mph (3kph). During what is known as the sky crane manoeuvre, the descent stage will lower the Rover on three cables to land softly on six wheels at Jezero Crater.

Scientists will begin the process of conducting experiments on the Martian surface immediately from landing, with the MOXIE instrument scheduled for one hour of oxygen production at a time, intermittently throughout the mission.

You can watch live coverage and landing commentary from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the NASA TV channel from 7.15pm GMT on Thursday.

Leicester has been involved in space research for more than 60 years. During that time the University’s experts have flown 90 instruments in space and there has been at least one Leicester-built instrument operating in orbit continuously since 1967. There are currently eight operational Leicester-built experiments in space. Meanwhile:

  • The James Webb Space Telescope, the largest ever put into space, is expected to be launched in October – this is a joint NASA/ESA mission with the UK contributing the MIRI instrument, in which the University has played a major role.
  • The BepiColombo mission to Mercury (due to arrive 2025) will fly past Venus in August and make its first flyby of Mercury in October – the first of six which will place it in orbit around Mercury in January 2025. Leicester is leading the main instrument on the mission to study the composition of the surface of the planet.
  • We will be landing a Leicester-built instrument on Mars in 2022 on the ESA Rosalind Franklin Rover.