NASA’s Perseverance rover touches down to start years-long search for life on Mars

Perseverance rover on Mars
A raw, uncorrected image from an engineering camera on NASA’s Perseverance rover shows its surroundings on Mars, including the rover’s shadow. (NASA via YouTube)

NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars today and began a mission that’s meant to store up evidence of past life on Mars, after a trip that came to a climax with seven minutes of delicious terror.

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” lead controller Swati Mohan declared at 12:55 p.m. PT.

The end of Perseverance’s seven-month, 300 million-mile journey played out like a radio drama. Due to limited bandwidth and an 11-minute delay in receiving signals, there was no live video of the landing. But thanks to internet links, millions of people could listen in as Mohan called out the milestones over a live stream from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

A socially distanced cadre of controllers at JPL applauded, screamed and exchanged fist bumps after the touchdown. Moments later, the first black-and-white picture from the rover’s hazard avoidance cameras was displayed on a giant screen.

Engineers at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., played a critical role in setting up what was arguably the riskiest phase of the descent.

After the spacecraft slowed down from a speed of 12,000 mph and deployed its parachute, a “sky crane” platform fired up eight Aerojet thrusters. While the platform hovered 65 feet above the surface of Jezero Crater, the rover was lowered to the surface on the end of a set of cables. Once the rover’s six wheels touched the surface, the cables were cut, and the platform blasted itself away to a crash landing.

The landing sequence was basically a rerun of the routine for 2012’s Mars Curiosity rover mission. “It seemed like a wild idea at the time, when Curiosity did it, but it worked flawlessly,” Bill Cahill, project manager for Aerojet’s Redmond operation, said during a webcast presented by Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Over the eight and a half years since Curiosity landed, the Perseverance team developed a navigation system that could capture views of the terrain beneath the spacecraft and adjust its descent accordingly.

JPL engineer Allen Chen, who led the team for entry, descent and landing, said during a post-touchdown news briefing that the system helped the rover dodge rugged areas that would have posed significant hazards for the mission. “We are in a nice flat spot,” he said. “The vehicle is only tilted by about 1.2 degrees. So we did successfully find that parking lot and have a safe rover on the ground.”

The 1-ton Perseverance rover makes use of Curiosity’s basic chassis design, but the $2.7 billion mission has a much more ambitious agenda.

“It really is the beginning of a new era, in the sense that we’re going from exploration … to the sample return phase,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for space science.

In addition to its on-site study of Martian geology, Perseverance will drill out samples of Martian soil and rock, store them in capsules and save them up for later retrieval. If all goes according to plan, a series of future robotic probes will bring those samples back to Earth in the early 2030s for detailed lab studies.

Pictures or it didn’t happen: Check out raw images from NASA’s Perseverance rover

The samples will be selected based on their potential to reveal whether Mars harbored life in its distant past, and perhaps whether remnants of life could still endure beneath the Red Planet’s surface.

“Are we alone in this sort of vast cosmic desert, just flying through space, or is life much more common? … We don’t know the answers yet,” JPL’s Ken Williford, the mission’s deputy project scientist, said during a pre-landing briefing. “We’re really on the verge of being able to potentially answer these enormous questions.”

Jezero Crater was chosen as the target area because its geology suggests it was flooded with water billions of years ago, providing a potentially hospitable environment for microbes. Even though Mars is much colder and drier than it was back then, it’s possible that chemical traces of past biological activity or fossilized traces of microbes could endure within the rock.

In addition to drilling samples, Perseverance is equipped with a suite of scientific instruments capable of surveying the chemical composition of its surroundings in unprecedented detail, including the first zoom camera ever sent to Mars. For that reason, Lori Glaze, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, refers to the rover as “our first mobile astrobiologist” on Mars.

But Perseverance is more than an astrobiologist: It’s carrying a deployable mini-helicopter dubbed Ingenuity that’s due to take a series of test flights during an early phase of the mission, becoming the first aerodynamic flying vehicle to soar over the surface of another planet.

“This is really a Wright Brothers moment,” Western Washington University’s Melissa Rice, a member of the Perseverance science team, said before today’s landing.

Yet another experiment, known as MOXIE, is designed to test techniques for converting the carbon dioxide in Mars’ thin atmosphere to oxygen. Such a technology could come in handy for future explorers who’ll need reserves of breathable air and rocket propellant.

Perseverance isn’t the Red Planet’s only new arrival: Thanks to a propitious orbital alignment, robotic spacecraft supported by China and the United Arab Emirates were launched last July just before Perseverance’s liftoff and entered Martian orbit earlier this month. China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter is due to send a lander and rover down to the surface in the May-June time frame.

Will such probes still be at work when humans are sent to Mars? In Perseverance’s case, that’s not a bad bet. NASA has set its primary mission to last at least one full Martian year, or nearly two Earth years. But thanks to its plutonium-fueled power system, the rover could theoretically stay in operation for a decade or more.

NASA’s acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk, said he received a congratulatory phone call from President Joe Biden after the landing. “His first words were, ‘Congratulations, man’ — and I knew it was him,” he said.

Jurczyk marveled at today’s success. “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,” he said. “Just an amazing accomplishment.”

Although the Perseverance team was generally diligent about mask-wearing and social distancing, Zurbuchen acknowledged half-jokingly that some rules were bent when the rover touched down. “I had to hug some people,” he said. “Sorry for that.”

In addition to all the science instruments, Perseverance carries a plaque that pays tribute to medical workers and their efforts to quell the coronavirus pandemic, as well as three microchips that are etched with the names of nearly 11 million people who responded to a “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign. For what it’s worth, it’s not too late to put your name in for the next mission to Mars.

Previously: How the pandemic changed the protocol for Mars

Discovery+ and the Science Channel are broadcasting special coverage about NASA’s Perseverance rover mission, including a streaming special titled “NASA Mars Landing: The Rover Arrives.” Other programs about the mission will air on PBS, National Geographic and the Smithsonian Channel. This report has been updated with information, quotes and an image from NASA’s post-landing news briefings.

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