After a roughly 292-million-mile journey capped by a treacherous landing procedure dubbed the “seven minutes of terror,” the Mars rover Perseverance built at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena successfully touched down Thursday on the surface of the Red Planet.
Minutes after the landing was confirmed at 12:55 p.m. California time, the rover’s first photographs from the surface of Mars were displayed on screens at JPL, giving mission managers a view of Perseverance’s mostly smooth but rock-dotted new home, where it will begin its search for signs of ancient life.
The rover touched down in what’s known as the Jezero Crater, which is believed to have housed an ancient body of water the size of Lake Tahoe.
The landing sparked cheers at the mission control center at JPL, where the anxiety of the “seven minutes of terror” landing procedure had scientists and mission managers visibly on edge.
“What a credit to the team,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said. “What an amazing team, to work through all the adversity and all the challenges that go with landing a rover on Mars, plus the challenges of COVID. Just an amazing accomplishment.”
President Joe Biden also hailed the landing, posting on Twitter, “Congratulations to NASA and everyone whose hard work made Perseverance’s historic landing possible. Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.”
Jurczyk said he received a phone call from Biden shortly after the landing, and the president said he wanted to “thank the team personally, and I told him we will make that happen.”
JPL Director Michael Watkins noted the particularly challenging environment in which the mission team worked due to COVID-19, stressing efforts to ensure “we could all work in a virtual sense, work remotely and, of course, keeping everyone safe in the lab in terms of (personal protective equipment) and facility changes.”
“We sort of had to change the tires as we were going down the highway, starting last year,” he said.
Watkins said despite the overall excitement of the rover’s two-year science mission, he believes the first few days “are the most magical.”
“There is something special about the first few days because we have just landed a representative of the planet Earth on a place on Mars that no one has ever been to,” he said. “No one has ever seen it, except from orbital imagery from a few hundred miles above Mars. I believe that magical sense that we bring is a lot of the reason that JPL exists and NASA exists, and I and everyone at the lab is very proud to be a part of that.”
The rover launched from Cape Canaveral on July 30, 2020, propelled on its way by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. At 12:38 p.m. California time Thursday, mission managers received confirmation that the “cruise stage” of the spacecraft had separated from the entry capsule carrying the rover.
The capsule then performed a series of rotations, positioning itself for the harrowing entry into the Martian atmosphere, with heat shields pointed downward to absorb the inferno generated during the descent. At 12:48 p.m., the capsule’s entry into the Martian atmosphere was confirmed, beginning the “seven minutes of terror” — the harrowing automated descent that saw the capsule endure entry temperatures of 2,370 as it traveled at speeds of about 12,100 mph.
Three minutes after entering the atmosphere, a parachute deployed, slowing the craft to about 200 mph and allowing the bottom heat shield to separate from the entry capsule. Losing the heat shield gave the rover its first unobstructed view of the planet, triggering a camera-and-radar system that scanned the surface of Mars to identify an unobstructed landing point.
At 12:54 p.m., mission managers confirmed the jettisoning of the “backshell” of the capsule, along with the attached parachute. The remaining portion of the entry capsule, known as the “descent stage,” then fired jetpack-like rockets to further slow the rover. Perseverance was then lowered using a trio of nylon tethers, which deposited the rover on the Martian surface.
Confirmation of the successful landing came right on schedule at 12:55 p.m.
Perseverance is the most technologically advanced rover ever sent to Mars, tasked with the primary mission of detecting signs of ancient life on a planet that has fascinated scientists and science-fiction buffs for decades. The rover will also be the first leg in a multi-pronged effort to transport samples of Martian soil back to Earth for the first time.
The historic recovery of Mars soil and rock samples will be done in partnership with the European Space Agency. The Perseverance rover will drill and collect samples, then store them on the surface of the planet. Current plans call for the launch of a “fetch rover” in 2026 that will collect the samples, place them in a rocket that will launch from the surface of Mars, rendezvousing with an orbiter that will capture the samples and return them to Earth.
The SUV-sized rover is also carrying an astronomical first — a small helicopter dubbed “Ingenuity” that will become the first such craft to fly on another planet, allowing for a wider exploration of the planet’s surface that rovers are unable to reach. “Ingenuity” is an experimental craft, but if it operates successfully, NASA officials hope future helicopters can be outfitted with more scientific equipment and vastly expand the ability to explore other worlds.
“Every time we execute a mission with new instruments, we discover new things, and things we never thought we would discover,” Jurczyk said. “So that always informs our future robotic missions — both landers, rovers and orbiters. This mission also has technology on it. One of the cool things is the `Ingenuity’ helicopter. It’s an experiment on this mission, but if it’s successful we can use it as a science observation platform by putting instruments on it and also use it as a scout for future rover missions.”
He also noted the information collected by the rover’s landing instrumentation, which will help make improvements on future missions, and the data that’ll be gathered by environmental instruments, which will analyze surface conditions such as Mars’ notorious red dust.
“Because when we sent people, we’re going to have to deal with that dust,” Jurczyk said.
“This is just an incredible mission because of the science and technology, and caching samples for a Mars sample-return mission. That’ll be an amazing mission. The first round trip to Mars and back, and bringing those samples cached by Perseverance back to Earth to be examined with state-of-the-art equipment in our laboratories here on Earth.”
But Perseverance’s primary science mission is astrobiological, searching for signs of ancient life. The mission is a natural extension of earlier rover missions that have uncovered evidence that the planet once featured running water. Scientists believe such water flowed in an ancient river and poured into a lake — in what is now Jezero Crater.
Mission managers said the 28-mile-wide crater in Mars’ northern hemisphere was home to a lake roughly the size of Lake Tahoe, roughly 3.5 billion years ago. Scientists hope the sediments that were dumped into the lake preserved organic molecules and other signs of microbial life.
Some of its additional scientific equipment will also help pave the way for future human missions to the moon and Mars. The rover is scheduled to operate for about two Earth years — or one Martian year.
Also aboard the rover: the names of 10.9 million people who signed up online. The names are included on three silicon chips embedded on a plate emblazoned with the words “Explore as one” — in Morse Code.
Now that the rover is on the Mars surface, it will remain mostly stationary for about a month, providing ample time for crews to fully assess its health, and to upload software — the instructions for the rover’s mission on the Red Planet.
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