NASA probe gently floats down to Martian surface
WASHINGTON — After seven months in space, NASA’s Perseverance rover overcame a tense landing with a series of perfectly executed maneuvers to gently float down to the Martian surface on Thursday and embark on its mission to search for signs of past life.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said operations lead Swati Mohan at 3:55 pm Eastern Time, as mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, erupted in cheers.
The autonomously guided procedure was in fact completed more than 11 minutes earlier, the length of time it took for radio signals to return to Earth.
Shortly after landing, the rover sent back its first black-and-white images, revealing a rocky field at the landing site in Jezero Crater, just north of the Red Planet’s equator.
More images, video of the descent and perhaps the first sounds of Mars recorded by microphones are expected in the coming hours as the rover relays data to overhead satellites.
US President Joe Biden hailed the “historic” event.
During a news conference, NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen theatrically tore up the landing’s contingency plan, to emphasize how well things had gone, and admitted he violated COVID-19 protocol by hugging people because of the emotions of the moment.
Tasks in coming years
Over the coming years, Perseverance will attempt to collect 30 rock and soil samples in sealed tubes, to be eventually sent back to Earth sometime in the 2030s for lab analysis.
About the size of an SUV, the craft weighs a ton. It is equipped with a two-meter-long robotic arm, has 19 cameras, two microphones and a suite of cutting-edge instruments to assist in its scientific goals.
Before it could set out on its lofty quest, it first had to overcome the dreaded “seven minutes of terror” — the risky entry, descent and landing phase that has scuppered nearly half of all missions to Mars.
The spacecraft carrying Perseverance careened into the Martian atmosphere at 20,000 kilometers per hour, protected by its heat shield, then deployed a supersonic parachute the size of a Little League field, before firing up an eight-engine jet-pack.
Finally, it lowered the rover carefully to the ground on a set of cables.
Mars was warmer and wetter in its distant past, and while previous exploration determined the planet was habitable, Perseverance is tasked with determining whether it was actually inhabited.
It will begin drilling its first samples in summer, and along the way it will deploy new instruments to scan for organic matter, map chemical composition, and zap rocks with a laser to study the vapor.
Despite the rover’s state-of-theart technology, bringing samples back to Earth remains crucial because of anticipated ambiguities in the specimens it documents.
For example, fossils from ancient microbes may look suspiciously similar to patterns caused by precipitation.