Perseverance, the largest and most complex rover ever sent into space, has successfully touched down on Mars and sent its first pictures back to Earth.
Miss my landing? Catch the highlights below.
— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) February 19, 2021
Having launched in July of last year as the centrepiece of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, Perseverance travelled around 472 million kilometres over 203 days before slowing its speed and entering Martian orbit. To reach the planet itself, the mission borrowed elements of Curiosity’s infamous sky crane landing, whereby the rover is lowered by a mothership vehicle that uses rockets to gently hover down to the surface. Data cables that linked the sky crane and the rover were provided by Scottish company Gore, a long time NASA collaborator and supplier.
Following a tense seven minutes during this stage of the descent, mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory celebrated when the rover arrived safely to its new home in the 45km-wide Jezero Crater, where it will shortly begin searching for signs that life has – at some point – existed on the Red Planet.
I’m safe on Mars. Perseverance will get you anywhere.
— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) February 18, 2021
“Landing on Mars is always an incredibly difficult task and we are proud to continue building on our past success,” said JPL director Michael Watkins. “But, while Perseverance advances that success, this rover is also blazing its own path and daring new challenges in the surface mission. We built the rover not just to land but to find and collect the best scientific samples for return to Earth, and its incredibly complex sampling system and autonomy not only enable that mission, they set the stage for future robotic and crewed missions.”
The 1,026kg rover will now undergo several weeks of testing and calibration before beginning its two-year exploration of the Jezero Crater, located on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator.
Perseverance will investigate the rock and sediment of Jezero’s ancient lakebed and river delta to characterise the region’s geology and past climate. A fundamental part of its mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. While its onboard instruments – including Thales’ SuperCam – are capable of impressive off-world science, the rover’s sample caching system will also collect material with a view to returning them to Earth via a future Mars mission, so they can be studied in more detail for signs of ancient microbial life.
“Perseverance is the most sophisticated robotic geologist ever made, but verifying that microscopic life once existed carries an enormous burden of proof,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “While we’ll learn a lot with the great instruments we have aboard the rover, it may very well require the far more capable laboratories and instruments back here on Earth to tell us whether our samples carry evidence that Mars once harboured life.”
The rover has already sent back its first images and is keeping Earth-bound onlookers informed via its own Twitter handle. Once Perseverance’s calibration phase is completed over the coming months, a highlight to watch out for will be the test flight of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, a small drone that will seek to achieve the first powered flight on another planet.