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Purdue scientist part of team awaiting Mars rover touchdown

Briony Horgan.jpg
Posted at 11:08 PM, Jan 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-26 23:11:57-05

WEST LAFAYETTE — When the Mars Perseverance Rover begins its descent toward the red planet in the middle of next month, a scientist from Purdue University will be among those with a keen interest in a successful touchdown.

Of particular interest will be the seven minutes spent waiting to receive a radio signal confirming the rover has landed. It's a period dubbed the "seven minutes of terror."

"The rover descends in a plasma fireball through the Mars atmosphere and has to slow down from about 12,000 miles per hour to zero in about seven minutes, so it is a pretty scary endeavor," Briony Horgan, associate professor of planetary science at Purdue, said.

Horgan has played a key role in the mission. She is a member of the Perseverance science team and led a study of the mineralogy of the landing site that produced one of the major results that contributed to its selection as the landing site. Horgan is also on the rover camera team that will be the scientific eyes for Perseverance.

The rover launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in July and is expected to touch down around Feb. 18. It will land in Jezero Crater, just north of the planet's equator.

Scientists are working on plans for where the rover will go and what it will do during the mission. Among the objectives are to collect samples, look for ancient signs of life and understanding the planet's geological processes.

The primary mission of the Perseverance rover is to look for signs of past life on Mars. Horgan and her colleagues will be looking for microscopic bits of evidence, including chemical clues that the scientists hope can still be found in the rock.

"This is a great opportunity for both me and my students to get involved with planning what the rover does day to day," Horgan said. "We're doing a lot of operations tests and working out the kinks in the software, learning how to work together as a team.

"We're really excited for the rover to hit the ground running but, hopefully, not hit it too hard."