NASA’s fifth Mars rover, Perseverance, landed successfully on the surface of Mars on Thursday, the U.S space agency confirmed.
Mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers as radio signals confirmed that the six-wheeled rover has arrived within its target zone inside Jezero Crater, the site of a long-vanished Martian lake bed.
“These missions are hard—there are a lot of things that have to go right,” says JPL’s Jennifer Trosper, Perseverance’s deputy project manager. “There are no guarantees. That’s what makes it exciting.”
The rover is the most technologically advanced robot NASA has ever sent to Mars and has already sent back images of the dusty Martian surface.
The six-wheeled vehicle will now spend at least the next two years drilling into the local rocks, looking for evidence of past life. It will be the first of NASA’s five rovers to look for traces of long-dead Martians.
“Our journey has been from following the water to seeing whether this planet was habitable, and finding complex chemicals,” NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen told reporters earlier this week. “And now we’re at the advent of an entirely new phase.”
Perseverance started its journey to Mars on July 30, 2020. Even though the rover was in orbit for almost six months, the most challenging phase is the seven-minute entry, descent, and landing (EDL). The sequence is referred to as “seven minutes of terror” because it happens faster than radio signals can reach Earth from Mars.
During the EDL phase, Perseverance was approaching Mars at a blazing 12,100 miles an hour—much too fast to land safely. Once it hit the Martian atmosphere, the drag on the spacecraft slowed its descent to less than 1,000 miles an hour, and then a parachute slowed it to about 200 miles an hour.
A gripping video from NASA shows how the rover, nicknamed “Percy”, pulled off such an amazing feat.
The landing team will now try to get Percy to Jezero Crater – the most challenging Martian terrain ever targeted for a landing. It is the site where an ancient river flowed into a lake on Mars, scientists believe, and where signs of ancient life may have been best preserved.
Perseverance will search for evidence of ancient life and study Mars’ climate and geology and collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth by the 2030s.
“The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission embodies our nation’s spirit of persevering even in the most challenging of situations, inspiring, and advancing science and exploration. The mission itself personifies the human ideal of persevering toward the future and will help us prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk.