A NASA rover streaked through the orange Martian sky and landed on the planet Thursday, accomplishing the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on Mars. Credit: NASA.

It was the first time many of those at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had been together in the same room due to Covid social-distancing protocols, and not everyone could be on site for the historic moment, officials said.

But those who were in mission control stood and applauded after “Percy,” otherwise known as the NASA Perseverance explorer, made a flawless landing on Mars, following a lengthy 300 million-mile, six-month journey and the infamous “seven minutes of terror,” CNN reported.

The US$2.4 billion spacecraft sent back its first images immediately after touchdown, which shows the rover’s shadow on the surface of its landing site of Jezero Crater.

“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States, and space exploration globally — when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, so to speak, to rewrite the textbooks,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

“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 in the 2030s.”

President Joe Biden called Jurczyk and said, “Congratulations, man,” and shared his congratulations to the thousands of people involved in the mission, CNN reported.

Humanity’s love affair with Mars is an enduring one, full of wonder about the possibility of life on this mysterious neighboring planet.

NASA/JPL

Perseverance is full of firsts. The search for signs of ancient life on Mars. The first helicopter to fly on another planet. The first recordings of sound on the Red Planet.

The most sophisticated rover NASA has built to date has a packed agenda for the next few years, CNN reported.

The rover will explore Jezero Crater, the site of an ancient lake that existed 3.9 billion years ago, and search for microfossils in the rocks and soil there. Follow-up missions will return samples of this site collected by Perseverance to Earth by the 2030s, NASA reported.

Along for the ride with Perseverance is an experiment to fly a helicopter, called Ingenuity, on another planet for the first time.

NASA’s 10-foot-long, $2.4 billion Perseverance rover is equipped with suites of technologies designed to aid in the hunt for life, USA Today reported:

  • Sixteen engineering and science cameras support safe navigation and help observe the surface, from extreme close-ups to far away. Some of these are part of larger scientific systems, like an ultraviolet spectrometer and another that uses X-rays.
  • A 7-foot arm attached to the front of Perseverance includes a powerful drill that can pull core samples from rocks that interest scientists. The samples can then be sealed and stored in tubes inside the rover’s main body for more analysis later.
  • Perseverance also has the capability to remove the stored samples and leave them in designated spots around Jezero Crater. A future mission – yet to be scheduled – could one day land on the Red Planet, pick up the tubes and then fly off to return them to scientists on Earth.
  • Unlike older Mars rovers, Perseverance and its Curiosity sibling rely on nuclear power. Essentially a “nuclear battery,” both rovers use energy generated by the decay of plutonium to charge onboard lithium batteries during dormancy.
  • Perseverance even has a friend hitching a ride for this mission: Ingenuity. This 4-pound drone will host the first-ever flight on another planet during a roughly monthlong window. Though Ingenuity has no science hardware, two cameras will help steer the drone and teach NASA engineers how to fly on a world with an atmosphere just 1% as dense as Earth’s.

Perseverance also carries instruments that could help further exploration on Mars in the future, like MOXIE, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, CNN reported.

NASA/JPL

This experiment, about the size of a car battery, will attempt to convert Martian carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Not only could this help NASA scientists learn how to produce rocket fuel on Mars, but also oxygen that could be used during future human exploration of the Red Planet, CNN reported.

Perseverance is NASA’s ninth landing on Mars and the agency’s fifth rover. In order to land, it had to go through the infamous “seven minutes of terror.”

The one-way time it takes for radio signals to travel from Earth to Mars is about 11 minutes, which means the seven minutes it takes for the spacecraft to land on Mars occurs without any help or intervention from NASA teams on Earth, CNN reported.

As it approached Mars’ thin atmosphere, the heat shield affixed to the front of Perseverance’s protective capsule bore the brunt of fiery entry while also acting as an airbrake of sorts.

A massive 70-foot parachute then automatically deployed, further slowing down the 2,200-pound rover, USA today reported.

About 65 feet from the surface, the still-firing retrorockets slowed Perseverance’s approach to 1.7 mph. The descent stage then kicked off the complicated “Sky Crane Maneuver,” which uses strong nylon cords to slowly lower the rover to the ground.

On the surface, Mars presents itself as a world on the verge of inhospitality, USA Today reported.

Average temperatures that hover around -81F degrees. A thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere sometimes rendered opaque by planet-wide dust storms that can even be seen from Earth. Gravity that’s just one-third of what humans have evolved to tolerate.

But the Red Planet’s features tell a different story.

Looking at photos captured by satellites in orbit, it doesn’t take much imagining to see Mars was likely once home to rivers of running water and enormous crater-lakes, USA Today reported.

With the right conditions, perhaps this planet that gets its rusty color from iron oxide-rich rocks could once have been suitable for life — or at least life as we know it.

This dichotomy has left experts asking one of the most difficult-to-answer questions in science today: What happened to Mars, and can the same thing happen here on Earth?

Any raw images sent back by the rover this week and going forward will also be immediately available to the public on NASA’s site.