After years of development and seven months in space, NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars today, kicking off what we can only hope will be years of groundbreaking science. NASA used Curiosity as a model for this new robot, but its instrument suite is upgraded to scour the red planet for signs of ancient life. This mission will also be the first leg in a three-part process to get bits of Mars back to Earth for more intense study. And it all starts today.
Being so closely related to Curiosity, we knew what to expect from the landing. As Perseverance approached the planet, NASA handed over control to the spacecraft’s onboard systems. Mars is too far away to control the descent in real-time, so the team had to sit through “seven minutes of terror” as they waited to get the all-clear from the rover. The team called out milestones as the spacecraft headed for the surface, and eventually, the rover landed safe and sound. The room erupted into applause the moment Perseverance reported in.
Landing on Mars is surprisingly complicated. There’s an atmosphere, but it’s not thick enough to slow down a rover the size of Perseverance with just parachutes or airbags. To assure a soft landing, NASA used the same sky crane system employed in 2012 to get Curiosity situated on Mars. The rocket-powered sled hovered over the surface, lowered the rover on cables, and then flew off to crash into the surface a safe distance away.
Hello, world. My first look at my forever home. #CountdownToMars pic.twitter.com/dkM9jE9I6X
— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) February 18, 2021
Perseverance is now in Jezero Crater, which was a lake several billion years in the past. The long-dead river that fed the lake left a delta, and scientists believe this is one of the best places to look for evidence of ancient life. Perseverance has the tools to do a lot of investigation on Mars, but it’s also going to be drilling core samples to store in special sterile tubes. Eventually, a second mission will collect the tubes and launch them into orbit. Then, a third mission will scoop them up and return to Earth. These follow-up missions are still in the planning phase, but NASA believes the samples could be on Earth in about a decade.
After getting its bearings, Perseverance will scout out a suitable location to deploy the Ingenuity helicopter. This is just a technology demonstration that won’t aid Perseverance in its mission, but it could pave the way for advanced aerial assets on future missions. We expect the first high-resolution images from Perseverance will arrive in the coming days. Maybe it’ll even be a selfie.
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