Tomorrow will be a make-or-break day as a NASA space robot makes a historic landing on the surface of Mars.
The Perseverance rover has spent the last seven months travelling the 34 million miles from Earth to the Red Planet, and is expected to transmit groundbreaking images from the surface.
It will also be searching for signs of life after it lands in a crater named Jezero just north of the planet’s equator.
The rover is scheduled to make its nail-biting seven-minute descent at around 7.15pm tomorrow – and anxious scientists will find out more than an hour later if it has been successful.
Here’s what we know about the historic mission.
What is the mission hoped to achieve?
For the first time, we could have a definitive answer to the question ‘is there life on Mars?’ thanks to data collected from the rover.
It could also help pave the way to send humans to the mysterious fourth planet from the sun for the first time.
NASA has identified the Jezero crater – which is a 28-mile wide area believed to contain an ancient river delta – as a region where evidence of past life could be preserved.
The probe will gather rock and soil samples which will be stored in tubes on the Martian surface.
It is set to return around 30 samples in the early 2030s, NASA has said.
Project scientist Ken Farley said: “It is a spectacular landing site.”
What do we know about the rover?
The groundbreaking space probe is equipped with 19 cameras, which will beam back images to Earth – although there will be a delay.
It weighs 1,050kg, and its installed systems will navigate it down to the surface, as engineers on Earth hold their breath, unable to help steer it.
It is fitted with a mini-helicopter named Ingenuity, which weighs just 1.8kg.
This will be the first such device to fly on another planet, and is expected to help collect valuable data and images.
The nuclear battery-powered rover, roughly the size of a small SUV, has a complex suite of instruments, including advanced power tools that will drill samples from Martian rock.
These will be sealed them into cigar-sized tubes, which will later be returned to Earth for analysis – the first such specimens ever collected by humankind from the surface of another planet.
The rover also comes with a weather station and two microphones that NASA hopes will give greater sensory depth to the images it records.
Two future missions to retrieve those samples and fly them back to Earth are in the planning stages by NASA, in collaboration with the European Space Agency.
Perseverance is the fifth and by far most sophisticated rover vehicle NASA has sent to Mars since Sojourner in 1997.
How tricky is the landing going to be?
As it descends through Mars’ atmosphere, Perseverance will have to slow down from 12,500mph – which is no mean feat.
Engineers have warned: “Success is never assured.”
Al Chen, who heads the descent and landing team at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, described it as the most critical and dangerous part of the $2.7billion mission.
The six-wheeled rover is set to take seven minutes to descend from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the planet’s surface.
He said: “Success is never assured. And that’s especially true when we’re trying to land the biggest, heaviest and most complicated rover we’ve ever built to the most dangerous site we’ve ever attempted to land at.”
How can I watch the landing from the UK?
The good news is that the landing will be broadcast online by NASA.
NASA’s YouTube channel will show the main landing, while viewers can also tune in to watch the mission control room on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) ‘Raw’ channel.
Should everything work, deputy project manager Matthew Wallace said, post-landing exuberance would be on full display at JPL despite Covid-19 safety protocols that have kept close contacts within mission control to a minimum.
“I don’t think Covid is going to be able to stop us from jumping up and down and fist-bumping,” Wallace said.