National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) largest and most advanced Mars rover, Perseverance, successfully touched down on the Martian surface on Friday, in a nail-biting landing that marks its first step in the search for signs of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.
“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life,” Indian-American flight controller Swati Mohan announced, prompting her colleagues at NASA to fist-bump and break into celebrations.
Packed with groundbreaking technology, the Mars 2020 mission was launched on July 30, last year, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, US.
The rover streaked through the Martian atmosphere and landed safely inside the vast Jezero Crater on Mars, after travelling for 203 days and traversing 472 million kilometres, the US space agency said. The touchdown of the rover marks an ambitious first step in the effort to collect Mars samples and return them to Earth, it said.
“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the US, 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 mission itself personifies the human ideal of persevering towards the future and will help us prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet,” Jurczyk said in a statement.
About the size of a car, the 1,026-kilogramme “robotic geologist and astrobiologist” will undergo several weeks of testing before it begins its two-year science investigation of Jezero Crater, NASA said.
While the rover will investigate the rock and sediment of Jezero’s ancient lakebed and river delta to characterise the region’s geology and past climate, a fundamental part of its mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life, it said.
To that end, the Mars Sample Return campaign, being planned by NASA and European Space Agency (ESA), will allow scientists on Earth to study samples collected by Perseverance to search for definitive signs of past life using instruments too large and complex to send to the Red Planet.
“Because of today’s exciting events, the first pristine samples from carefully documented locations on another planet are another step closer to being returned to Earth,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA.
Some 45 kilometres wide, Jezero Crater sits on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Scientists have determined that 3.5 billion years ago the crater had its own river delta and was filled with water.
Equipped with seven primary science instruments, the most cameras ever sent to Mars, and its exquisitely complex sample caching system, Perseverance will scour the Jezero region for fossilised remains of ancient microscopic Martian life, taking samples along the way, according to the US space agency.