PEI

NASA rover worked on by P.E.I. scientist lands safely on Mars

NASA's Perseverance rover safely landed on Mars just before 5 p.m. AT Thursday. A scientist originally from Cornwall, P.E.I. spent a long time waiting for this day.

Peter Willis worked on instruments that will collect samples from Mars

P.E.I.’s Peter Willis says the rover’s landing on Mars, expected for 4:55 p.m. AT today, is ‘something I never imagined I'd get to participate in.’ Here he stands in front of a duplicate model of a Mars rover. (Submitted by Peter Willis)

  Editor's note: This story was written before Thursday's successful landing of the Perseverance rover. For coverage of that developing news event, click here

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NASA's Perseverance rover could land in a section of Mars named by a P.E.I. scientist for the Island's national park if it manages a safe landing onto the red planet. 

Peter Willis is originally from Cornwall, P.E.I., and now lives in California, where he works for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories and worked on the part of the rover that will collect ground samples from Mars.

"I'm nervous, but it's a good, nervous, happy excitement," Willis told host Louise Martin on CBC News: Compass before the lander touched down just before 5 p.m. AT on Thursday.  

"I get to participate on behalf of my family and everyone on P.E.I. on this great mission of exploration," he said. "It's just something I never imagined I'd get to participate in." 

This illustration shows NASA’s Mars 2020 spacecraft carrying the Perseverance rover as it approaches Mars. People all over the world will be watching as it is set to touch down this afternoon. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Earlier in his work on the mission, Willis was one of the scientists who chose a name for a section of a Mars crater that the rover could drive through, and he decided on a place close to home. 

"There's a bunch of really nice, smooth, flat places in the quadrant that I named after Prince Edward Island National Park. And there's a reasonable chance that [the rover could] land there," said Willis.

Since Perseverance's launch in July 2020, Willis has been working on getting the rover ready to collect samples once it arrives on Mars.  

"There's been a lot of work done to really assess how the instruments are going to work together and determining what minerals are present and what minerals are the most interesting ones to sample," he said.

I never actually really had such a feeling before. To be honest with you, it's unlike any professional experience I've ever had in my career.— Peter Willis

There's no guarantee that the rover will successfully land on Mars. Many spacecraft attempting the journey in the past have burned up, crashed, or otherwise ended in failure. 

Willis is confident this time will be different. 

"I think the landing is going to go flawlessly and we're going to touch down and we're all going to celebrate," he said.

"I never actually really had such a feeling before. To be honest with you, it's unlike any professional experience I've ever had in my career." 

This illustration depicts NASA's Perseverance rover operating on the surface of Mars. ( NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Willis shared his excitement this week when he spoke with a physics class at his P.E.I. alma mater, Bluefield High School. 

Also sharing in the anticipation are Willis' two young sons, aged five and three. 

"They're all excited about it, like, 'Daddy ... do we get to wake up in the middle of the night to see the rover?' No, it's the middle of the day," he said. 

NASA viewing party

Islanders who want to follow along and watch the rover landing should go to the NASA website, said Willis, where the viewing party starts at 3 p.m. AT. 

"There'll be a whole bunch of information about the mission, various people talking about the goals," he said.

The landing is scheduled to take place at 4:55 p.m. AT. 

During the landing, "the heat shell comes off and then the parachute gets extended. You'll be able to follow along each step along the way and then it culminates [in the] landing," said Willis. 

He said if all goes according to plan, people will see an image of the surface of Mars. 

"There's an automatic photo taken with one of the front hazard cameras of the ground in front of the rover. So once you get that picture back, that's when everyone knows everything worked out perfectly and we're ready to go." 

More from CBC P.E.I. 

With files from CBC News: Compass

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