NASA Rover Makes Treacherous Journey to Surface of Mars to Search for Signs of Past Life


A NASA rover streaked through the orange Martian sky and landed on the planet on Thursday, accomplishing the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to discover whether life ever existed on Mars.

Ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, cheered and exchanged high-fives on receiving confirmation that the six-wheeled Perseverance had touched down on Mars, long a deathtrap for incoming spacecraft.

It took a tense 11 1/2 minutes for the signal to reach Earth.

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life,” flight controller Swati Mohan announced to colleagues.

Perseverance is the red planet’s third visitor from Earth in just over a week. Two spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China swung into orbit around Mars on successive days last week.

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All three missions lifted off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars, traveling some 300 million miles in nearly seven months.

Perseverance, the biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, became the ninth spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, every one of them from the U.S.

The car-sized, plutonium-powered vehicle arrived at Jezero Crater, hitting NASA’s smallest and trickiest target yet: a 5-by-4-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and fields of rock.

Over the next two years, Percy, as it is nicknamed, will use its 7-foot arm to drill down and collect rock samples for possible signs of bygone microscopic life.

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Three to four dozen small samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside on Mars to be retrieved by a rover and brought home by another rocket ship.

The goal is to get them back to Earth as early as 2031.

China’s spacecraft includes a smaller rover that also will be seeking evidence of life — if it makes it safely down from orbit in May or June.

Perseverance was on its own for “seven minutes of terror” on its descent.

Flight controllers waited helplessly as the spacecraft hit the thin, 95 percent carbon dioxide Martian atmosphere at 12,100 mph, or 16 times the speed of sound, slowing as it plummeted.

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It released its 70-foot parachute, jettisoned its heat shield, and then used a rocket-steered platform known as a sky crane to lower the rover the final 60 or so feet to the surface.

Perseverance appeared to touch down about 35 yards from the nearest rocks.

Mars has proved a treacherous place: In the span of less than three months in 1999, a U.S. spacecraft was destroyed upon entering orbit and an American lander crashed on Mars after its engines cut out prematurely.

Perseverance will conduct an experiment in which it will convert small amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into oxygen, a process that could be a boon to future astronauts by providing breathable air and an ingredient for rocket fuel.

The rover is also equipped with a record 25 cameras and two microphones, many of them turned on during descent.

“A feast for the eyes and ears. It’s really going to be spectacular,” said Arizona State University’s Jim Bell, who is in charge of a pair of cameras that will serve as the rover’s eyes.

NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to bring the rocks home. Perseverance’s mission alone costs nearly $3 billion.

“It’s really the most extraordinary, mind-boggingly complicated and … history-making exploration campaign,” David Parker, the European Space Agency’s director of human and robotic exploration, said on the eve of landing.

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