NASA’s newest robotic explorer has landed safely on Mars after a nearly 300-million-mile journey that began on a Florida launch pad.
The agency’s Perseverance rover touched down on the Red Planet at 3:55 p.m. EST Thursday, bringing an end to the “seven minutes of terror” that saw a fiery atmospheric entry and parachute-assisted descent. The rover’s landing mechanism then fired eight retrorockets to slow down and guide it to a proper landing spot before using nylon cords to lower it onto the surface.
“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” exclaimed NASA engineer Swati Mohan.
All told, the unique landing maneuver successfully decelerated Perseverance from thousands of miles an hour to just 1.7 mph at touchdown. And because of an 11-minute delay in transmissions from Earth to Mars, the rover did it all on its own – no human input was possible.
Mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California quickly received data from Mars satellites and the rover itself confirming a good touchdown, including the first images from Perseverance: scenes of a desolate, dusty landscape that looks dangerous to humans but full of potential for this scientist-explorer.
“We got it. We’re there,” JPL Chief Engineer Rob Manning, who has worked on Mars landings for decades, said after landing. “This is so exciting and the team is beside themselves. This is so surreal. So much has been riding on this.”
Just minutes after the landing, Perseverance continued sending images from its hazard-detecting navigational cameras.
Manning also confirmed teams knew exactly where the rover landed well ahead of schedule.
“This is a sign that NASA works,” Manning said. “When we put our arms together and our hands together and our brains together, we can succeed. This is what NASA does and this is what we can do as a country.”
The Red Planet’s newcomer now finds itself in Jezero Crater, a region of Mars once believed to harbor a massive lake fed by rivers of running water. The regolith and rocks here will be prime targets for Perseverance’s suite of instruments designed to hunt for past or present signs of life.
Live video was made possible by NASA during Perseverance’s approach, entry, descent, and landing.
“Perseverance is our robotic astrobiologist, and it will be the first rover NASA has sent to Mars with the explicit goal of searching for signs of ancient life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
Though Perseverance isn’t the first rover on Mars – the U.S. and other countries have been targeting the Red Planet for decades – it’s the most advanced and fastest, and it will likely survive longer than its predecessors in this harsh, dusty environment.
Unlike older rovers that relied on solar power, for example, Perseverance runs on nuclear power. This is especially important on a planet where massive, global dust storms can render solar panels useless.
“It’s the biggest and best rover that we’ve ever sent to Mars,” said NASA’s Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mike Watkins. “It can really do amazing things in terms of its own scientific exploration of this habitable environment at Jezero.”
NASA expects Perseverance’s surface mission to last about one Martian year, or two Earth years.
The 2,200-pound rover, nearly identical though slightly larger than its 2012 Curiosity predecessor, has several suites of onboard instruments that will be used to find, analyze, and store rock samples. A drill on the end of its “arm” is designed to grab core samples, while systems that use X-rays and ultraviolet spectrometers can conduct scientific investigations right there on the surface.
There’s some forward-thinking, too: Perseverance can not only store its core samples in tubes and put those in its “body,” but it can later remove and scatter them around the surface of Jezero Crater for a yet-to-be-scheduled sample return mission. Though Perseverance is no slouch with its onboard instruments, scientists hope to use their own tools and equipment on samples obtained directly from Mars.
Manasvi Lingam, a professor of astrobiology, aerospace, physics and space sciences at Florida Tech, said bringing samples back to Earth has two advantages for scientists: the breadth and number of instruments available on Earth vastly outclass what’s available on Perseverance; and despite technological advances, having a human eye looking at samples is still the preferred method.
“Any sign of life will of course be one of the most momentous discoveries in the entire history of humanity,” Lingam said. “Even if it is extinct life, just knowing that there was something out there is certainly Nobel Prize-level.”
Seeking the first-ever flight on another planet
Nicknamed “Percy” by her Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission managers, NASA’s latest rover isn’t alone in Jezero Crater. A small, 4-pound helicopter named Ingenuity hitched a ride down to the surface on the rover’s “belly.”
Ingenuity’s mission is simple and unrelated to the larger science objectives: conduct the first-ever flight on another world. To accomplish this in an atmosphere just 1% as dense as Earth’s, NASA had to build a small vehicle with large carbon fiber blades and make it light enough to lift off.
Using two cameras, the small helicopter will attempt the first test flights over a yet-to-be-determined 30-day period. Ingenuity could offer robotic and human explorers of the future a critical high-level view of the planet.
Perseverance began its journey to Mars in July 2020 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, which vaulted the payload on a complicated trajectory from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
“We or our heritage rockets have done every U.S. mission to Mars, so it’s something that’s really special to us,” Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, told Florida Today, part of the USA TODAY Network. “We’re really excited and honored to be trusted with a mission like this to Mars.”
Bruno said all missions are important, but science-focused ones like Perseverance have a special place in his company, which is focused on its next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket for flights of all types.
“The missions we launch are always important,” Bruno said. “This is some group of people’s life’s work. The research they have done leading up to this and the work on the spacecraft itself is a career all alone.”
“If you lose that spacecraft or you don’t deliver it the way it needs to be delivered in order for it to do its mission, sometimes there’s no recovering from that. Their whole career culminated in this mission and they don’t have a second career to do another one,” Bruno said.
“We take that very, very seriously.”
Credits: NASA and USA Today