Nasa’s Perseverance rover is in position to begin exploring the surface of Mars for signs of ancient life, after US space scientists successfully landed the most sophisticated vehicle sent from Earth to another planet.
Joyful but socially distanced celebrations broke out on Thursday evening at California’s Jet Propulsion Lab, headquarters of the $2.7bn mission, when a radio signal from Perseverance confirmed it had touched down at Jezero crater, close to the Martian equator, after a 470m km flight.
The masked scientists and engineers cheered, clapped and fist-bumped as they celebrated the rover’s safe landing. A minute or two later the first picture appeared, a fuzzy black-and-white image of the crater floor. Vivid colour photos are expected soon.
“This is a fantastic day for planetary science, with a new precision landing system delivering Perseverance to the right spot,” said Professor Andrew Coates, a University College London space scientist who was involved in previous Mars missions.
“With Perseverance there now and then Europe’s Rosalind Franklin rover arriving in 2023, I think we are going to find out once and for all in the next few years whether there is or has been life on Mars,” he added.
Perseverance survived the famous “seven minutes of terror”, a term coined for previous Mars landings for the time it takes to decelerate from the entry speed of 20,000kph, when the craft reaches the atmosphere, to a touchdown at slower than walking pace.
The landing technology deployed was an upgraded version of the one on Curiosity, the last Nasa rover to land on Mars, in 2012. Added features included a range trigger to guide the opening of the craft’s parachute and maximise the chance of a gentle touchdown.
Perseverance will spend the next month or so going through a thorough check of all its instruments. Then its first job will be to move a short distance to launch an ultralight helicopter for the first powered flight on an extraterrestrial planet.
The 1.8kg Ingenuity rotorcraft is a technology demonstrator to show whether helicopters can perform usefully in the Martian atmosphere, which is just 1 per cent as dense as Earth’s.
If it works well, Ingenuity will make five flights, providing an aerial view of the crater where Perseverance will spend the next two years, searching for signs of ancient microbes that might have flourished when water flowed on Mars about 3bn years ago.
The rover will journey around the ancient and desiccated terrain of Jezero crater, which once contained a lake, armed with instruments to probe the rocks and soil for physical and chemical signatures of biological processes. Scientists do not expect to find living organisms.
Another technology experiment is the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or Moxie, which will make oxygen out of the thin air on Mars by electrochemically breaking down carbon dioxide. If astronauts are to land and live on the red planet, they would need locally generated oxygen to breathe and to burn fuel.
Perseverance will also leave a legacy on the Martian surface for future missions. Its Sample Caching System will put broken rock and dust into metal canisters and leave them behind to be collected and brought to Earth by future missions that Nasa is planning in collaboration with the European Space Agency.