NASA Mars Rover touches down, GBT receives signal

Green Bank Observatory

Cheers could be heard throughout Green Bank Observatory as NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover successfully touched down on the Red Planet February 18 at 3:55 p.m. EDT. The National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT) helped relay communications from the rover to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) located in southern California. 

A global pandemic and a major winter storm were no match for this mission. Green Bank Observatory has operated under strict COVID-19 safety protocols since March 2020, which means only a handful of staff were onsite, while others were working remotely, to support this project. An ice storm and heavy snowfall were feared to impact the telescope, but the hard work of the staff onsite ensured the smooth operations of the 17-million pound instrument. 

Those onsite included Will Armentrout, Green Bank Observatory project scientist for Perseverance, and data analyst Amber Bonsall, both of whom were on a direct line with JPL, socially distanced together in a large auditorium. After touchdown, Amber and Will shared their feelings of relief and elation. “Once we went on target and were tracking Mars, it was fairly smooth sailing from there,” Will said.

What was it like watching the rover land?  

“We were seeing it a couple of minutes before NASA’s livestream you could see,” Amber revealed. “It was pretty awesome.”

However, the process was still stressful.

“The minutes seemed very long before touchdown,” she added.

What exactly could the GBT see as the rover landed?

“As Perseverance descended through the Martian atmosphere, the rover emitted a constant radio signal that the GBT could observe,” Will explained. “We weren’t seeing a data stream or images as the rover landed, just that faint radio signal telling us Perseverance was still okay. The GBT provided JPL with some of the first indications of a successful landing from our observations.”

As NASA officially tweeted, “After 203 days and 300 million miles [the Perseverance rover] landed on Mars… After spending some time checking out its systems, it’ll be rolling across the Red Planet, looking for signs of ancient Martian life.”

As NASA/JPL have shared, while on Mars the Perseverance rover will collect carefully selected and documented rock and sediment samples for future return to Earth, search for signs of ancient microbial life, characterize the planet’s geology and climate, and pave the way for human exploration beyond the Moon.

This is not the first time the Green Bank Telescope has supported a NASA mission to Mars. In 2018, the GBT received direct signals from the Mars InSight Lander. This provided backup information to NASA during the critical landing stages of the spacecraft and confirmed its successful descent. The GBT was also used to support the Phoenix landing in 2008. 

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the Green Bank Observatory are facilities of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

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