The Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County will monitor NASA’s Perseverance rover as it descends through the atmosphere of Mars and touches down on the surface of the red planet on Thursday.
The 2.3-acre receiving surface of the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope will be used to track the low-frequency communication signals transmitted by Perseverance during its seven-minute final descent to a landing site in 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater.
From Green Bank, the signals will be relayed to NASA’s control center for the Perseverance mission, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California.
During the descent, Perseverance’s speed will plunge from about 12,000 miles per hour just prior to entering the atmosphere of Mars to about 3 feet per second when the rover touches down on its wheels — if all goes as planned.
Friction from rapid deceleration, caused by deployment of a supersonic parachute and a heat shield, produces intense heat, causing a field of ionized particles to wrap around the rover as it approaches the Martian surface, temporarily obscuring communications with Earth.
The temporary blackout prompted scientists monitoring earlier NASA missions to Mars nickname the entry-descent-landing phase “seven minutes of terror,” according to a release from the observatory, which provided similar support to NASA during the 2018 InSight and 2008 Phoenix Mars landings.
“There’s such a human component to all of these NASA missions, and they have a way of sticking in our memory,” said Will Armentrout, Green Bank Observatory’s project scientist for the Perseverance landing.
“I remember exactly where I was when NASA landed Curiosity on Mars in 2012 — curled up at home with a bag of popcorn and getting ready to start as a physics graduate student the next week,” Armentrout said in the release. “For the 2018 InSight landing, I was a post doc at Green Bank, peeking over the shoulder of another scientist.”
Armentrout said he now looks forward to “supporting the Green Bank Telescope’s controls and praying that we see that signal” during Thursday’s Perseverance landing.
Also supporting the Perseverance Mission at Green Bank are project manager Marty Bloss, data analyst Amber Bonsall, microwave engineer Galen Watts, telescope operator Brandon Moore and emeritus scientist Frank Ghigo.
According to NASA, the Perseverance rover’s work on Mars will include searching for signs of past microbial life. The Jezero Crater, its planned landing site, is believed to have once contained a lake and a river delta. The rover will be carrying diagnostic instruments capable of detecting traces of organic matter and mapping the chemical composition of rocks.
The rover will also deploy and test an instrument designed to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide-based atmosphere on Mars, possibly paving the way for future human explorers to both breathe and produce rocket propellant for a return flight.
A 19-inch solar-powered helicopter with a 4-foot rotor capable of spinning at 2,400 rpm will be launched from the rover to test the prospects for flight in the thin Martian air. If successful, future NASA Mars missions could use such aircraft for scouting or light transport duty.
The Green Bank Observatory’s participation in the Perseverance rover mission is supported by the National Science Foundation.