The landing culminates a seven-month, 293-million-mile journey across space to answer one of our species’ most pressing questions: Has life ever existed beyond our planet?
(CN) — After a tense, seven-minute descent through the Martian atmosphere Thursday, NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down in the red planet’s Jezero Crater, where it will collect sediment samples to bring back to Earth and search for evidence of ancient microbial life.
Dozens of mission control operators at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California — clad in face masks — cheered loudly and fist-bumped as confirmation was received that the high-tech rover had successfully landed.
“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars,” NASA’s Swati Mohan said in the live broadcast of the landing Thursday.
The first images of the Martian surface captured by Perseverance were streamed on the broadcast shortly after landing.
Moments before landing, NASA engineers remotely monitored “heartbeat tones” from the rover after it separated from the craft that brought it to Mars and as it entered the planet’s thin atmosphere, slowing its speed from over 12,000 miles per hour to 200 mph.
Millions of people around the world followed NASA’s broadcast of Perseverance entering Mars’ thin atmosphere and navigating over boulders and cliffs lining the Jezero Crater until finally setting down on the ancient Martian lakebed.
The six-wheeled, SUV-sized rover — built and operated by NASA scientists and engineers at JPL — will use its high-tech robotic arm and drill to collect soil and rock samples from what scientists believe was once a flourishing river delta and lake.
NASA scientists have said the 28-mile-wide crater once hosted a Lake Tahoe-sized body of water that may have left behind clues of single-celled organisms and microbial life that could’ve populated the planet.
Previous NASA missions to Mars uncovered evidence the fourth planet from the sun once supported massive bodies of water.
But those ancient lakes and rivers dried up more than 3 billion years ago, NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a live broadcast before the landing Thursday.
Now that it’s landed, Perseverance will probe the crater to determine whether the cold, barren desert world ever sustained life and whether evidence of that ancient life is preserved in its surface.
“At that time, were there single-celled organisms,” Zurbuchen asked. “We don’t know.”
Perseverance can self-navigate about 660 feet of Martian terrain each day and will build a map of the planet as it travels, NASA aerospace engineer Farah Alibay said in the broadcast.
The rover’s autonomous navigation mechanisms will allow it to traverse more of the red planet — and collect more valuable information — without requiring constant direction from NASA engineers, Alibay said.
NASA’s Katie Stack Morgan, a Perseverance mission scientist, said in the broadcast Thursday the rover’s instruments will search for fossils and other evidence of any ancient life that may have lived in the crater.
“The river delta deposits are a great place to preserve clay and evidence of potential microbial life,” Stack Morgan said. “We’re looking for biosignatures. We want to understand how Mars went from being a once habitable world to the cold, barren planet it is today. That’s one of the most fundamental and essential questions we can ask.”
NASA engineer Allen Chen, who directed Perseverance’s descent to Mars, said Thursday planning a successful landing on the “treacherous landing site” within the crater was a daunting challenge.
Perseverance, which autonomously guided its own landing, could have inadvertently touched down on an inescapable sand dune or become stuck in a rocky field, Chen said.
Mohan, the NASA scientist who led Perseverance’s navigation operations, called the landing zone “the most difficult landing site ever attempted.”
The already-ambitious mission was further complicated by the rapid development of the novel coronavirus pandemic in 2020, which scattered NASA’s workforce into remote operation.
NASA administrators worked tirelessly to maintain the mission’s schedule while also implementing robust safety measures for mission staff, Chen said.
“It was a challenge to figure out how to get things done remotely,” Chen said. “The name of the mission, ‘Perseverance,’ also speaks to the attitude of the team.”
As part of the mission, NASA also plans to scout Mars’ rocky terrain by remotely piloting a small drone helicopter named Ingenuity.
The mountainous, unforgiving landscape within the Jezero Crater would be more easily traversed by a rotocraft then by an astronaut or a rover, NASA scientists have said.
Successful flight of the lightweight drone would mark the first time humans have remotely flown a rotocraft on another planet.
Zurbuchen, the NASA administrator, described Ingenuity’s mission Thursday as an “extra-terrestrial Wright Brothers moment” that would shape future human-led missions to Mars by mapping more of the planet.
Another technology aboard Perseverance that could aid future missions to the barren planet is an instrument that can produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere.
The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment tool could help future space explorers produce oxygen for breathing and for powering rocket-propelled crafts, according to NASA.
Perseverance and Ingenuity — which both launched on July 30, 2020, from Cape Canaveral in Florida — won’t be alone on the red planet.
NASA’s 1-ton, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover has been crawling across the interior of Mars’ Gale Crater since 2012.
Along with capturing stunning images of the Martian surface, Curiosity has been searching for complex microbes and evidence that life-sustaining conditions once existed there.
In a statement from JPL, NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk underscored the thoughts of everyone who watched Perseverance touch down Thursday afternoon.
“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States, and space exploration globally — when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, so to speak, to rewrite the textbooks,” he said. “The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission embodies our nation’s spirit of persevering even in the most challenging of situations, inspiring, and advancing science and exploration. The mission itself personifies the human ideal of persevering toward the future and will help us prepare for human exploration of the red planet in the 2030s.”