(CN) — NASA officials involved with the Perseverance Mars rover landing waxed exuberant about the progress of the mission during a Friday press conference.
“Our first drive went incredibly well,” said Anais Zarifian, the mobility test bed engineer for the mission. “You can see the wheel tracks that we left on Mars. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see wheel tracks.”
Officials detailed the Pereverance’s first few milestones after successfully landing at the Jezero Crater on Feb. 18 to carry out its scientific fact-finding mission that includes searching for signs of ancient life on the red planet.
Since landing, the rover took its first color photos of Mars, gave its first rover radio report and carried out its first major systems assessment, said Robert Hogg, the deputy mission manager.
“Yesterday, we carried out our first drive on Mars,” Hogg said.
The rover only traveled a total 66.5 meters during a 33-minute period, but the fact that it is functioning as envisioned has NASA scientists thrilled at the prospect of further scientific discovery.
“Everything we have looked at and tried has worked beautifully,” Hogg said.
But the scientists are eager to proceed.
Ingenuity, a small drone helicopter scientists have harbored on board the rover, is busy preparing itself for its initial flight, which will mark the first time aerial flight has been attempted on a planet beyond Earth.
“We are still figuring out the possible flight zones,” Hogg said. “But long story short, we are planning to fly sometime in the spring going into summer.”
Once the helicopter is launched, the rover will then move through the Jezero Crater on its way to an ancient delta, where scientists hope to find biosignatures or artifacts of ancient life. Far from seeking alien fossils, scientists are going to be looking for evidence of microbial life that may have flourished when the crater was a lake about 300 million years ago.
“We are excited to get to the delta and want to get there efficiently, but we are also interested in doing science along the way,” said Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist.
The scientists have yet to decide whether they want to pursue a clockwise or counterclockwise exploration of the area in the vicinity of the landing site but must do a series of system checks before such exploration can begin in earnest.
The mission is not just looking for records of ancient life but is also part of a complicated process to collect samples that will be returned to Earth to be analyzed by scientists to help bring NASA’s stated goal to put astronauts on Mars to fruition sometime in the 2030s.
“This is one for the ages for NASA,” Hogg said. “We have been talking about this for decades.”
Perseverance will collect soil and regolith — broken rock and dust — samples as it patrols the Jezero Crater. Those samples will then be stored in various caches on Mars. In 2026, a “fetch rover” will be deployed to the planet to collect the caches and deliver them to a rocket stationed on the Martian surface. The rocket will launch into orbit around the planet, where another orbiter will collect the samples and return them to Earth.
NASA also tossed a bone to avid science fiction fans on Friday, announcing they have named the landing site after writer Octavia E. Butler, an African-American woman who became the first science-fiction author to receive a MacArthur Award, the so-called genius grant.
“Butler’s protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission, and its theme of overcoming challenges,” Stack Morgan said.
While the largest challenge of collecting samples of Martian rock and returning them to Earth remains, the mission has so far been seamless, instilling confidence in the mission’s managers.
“It seems like it’s a long way away, but it will pass in the blink of an eye,” Hogg said.