Tensions rise as rival Mars probes approach their final destination

Of the dozens of Mars missions since 1960, about half have crashed or missed the planet altogether, thanks to component failures, rocket engine mishaps or software errors.

“I have had instruments on two previous Mars missions – Britain’s Beagle lander and Europe’s Schiaparelli probe – and each time I was in the control room, clutching my seat, during their descents.

In the past, US space engineers have relied on fitting airbags to their probes allowing them to bounce to a standstill after being dropped from a parachute.

However, Nasa’s new generation of rovers are too complex and heavy for such manoeuvres and Perseverance will instead rely on a rocket platform called a sky crane to lower it to the Martian surface.

Crucially, the three probes form part of a spearhead of missions that in coming years should transform our knowledge of the planet, by returning Martian rock and soil samples to Earth for study.

This task will be started by Perseverance, which is scheduled to pinpoint promising geological sites, extract soil samples and leave caches of them at selected locations.

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