Perseverance, the most advanced astrobiology laboratory ever sent to outer space, streaked through the Martian atmosphere and landed safely on the floor of a vast crater, its first stop on a search for traces of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet. The robotic vehicle sailed through space for nearly seven months, covering 293 million miles before piercing the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour to begin its descent to the planet’s surface.
In an astonishing development never seen before, Mars rover Perseverance sent early images exposing its picture-perfect landing including a selfie of the six-wheeled vehicle dangling just above the surface of the Red Planet moments before touchdown. The colour photograph, likely to become an instant classic among memorable images from the history of spaceflight, was snapped by a camera mounted on the rocket-powered sky crane descent-stage just above the rover as the car-sized space vehicle was being lowered on to Martian soil.
The picture, looking down on the rover, shows the entire vehicle suspended from three cables unspooled from the sky crane, along with an umbilical communications cord. Swirls of dust kicked up by the crane’s rocket thrusters are also visible. Seconds later, the rover was gently planted on its wheels, its tethers were severed and the sky crane – its job completed – flew off to crash a safe distance away, though not before photos and other data collected during the descent were transmitted to the rover for safekeeping. The image of the dangling science lab, striking for its clarity and sense of motion, marks the first such close-up photo of a spacecraft landing on Mars, or any planet beyond Earth.
Justifiably, the image is ranked iconic and is in the league of the shot of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon in 1969 or the Voyager 1 probe’s images of Saturn in 1980. The image was taken at the very end of the so-called seven-minutes-of-terror descent sequence that brought Perseverance from the top of Mars’ atmosphere, traveling at 12,000 miles per hour, to a gentle touchdown on the floor of a vast basin called the Jezero Crater. Next week, NASA hopes to present more photos and video – some possibly with audio – taken by all six cameras affixed to the descending spacecraft, showing more of the sky crane maneuvers, as well as the supersonic parachute deployment that preceded it.
The vehicle landed about two kilometers from tall cliffs at the base of an ancient river delta carved into the corner of the crater billions of years ago, when Mars was warmer, wetter and presumably hospitable to life. Scientists say the site is ideal for pursuing Perseverance’s primary objective – searching for fossilized traces of microbial life preserved in sediments believed to have been deposited around the delta and the long-vanished lake it once fed. Samples of rock drilled from the Martian soil are to be stored on the surface for eventual retrieval and delivery to Earth by two future robotic missions to the Red Planet, as early as 2031.
Another colour photo captured moments after the rover’s arrival, shows a rocky expanse of terrain around the landing site and what appear to be the delta cliffs in the distance. One of Perseverance’s tasks before embarking on its search for signs of microbial life will be to deploy a miniature helicopter it carried to Mars for an unprecedented extraterrestrial test flight. Because it takes radio waves 11 minutes to travel from Mars to Earth, the SUV-sized rover had already reached Martian soil by the time its arrival was confirmed by signals relayed to Earth from one of several satellites orbiting Mars.
The landing represented the riskiest part of two-year, $2.7 billion endeavour whose primary aim is to search for possible fossilized signs of microbes that may have flourished on Mars some 3 billion years ago, when the fourth planet from the sun was warmer, wetter and potentially hospitable to life. Scientists hope to find bio-signatures embedded in samples of ancient sediments that Perseverance is designed to extract from Martian rock for future analysis back on Earth – the first such specimens ever collected by humankind from another planet. Two subsequent Mars missions are planned to retrieve the samples and return them to NASA in the next decade.
NASA scientists have described Perseverance as the most ambitious of nearly 20 US missions to Mars dating back to the Mariner spacecraft’s 1965 fly-by. Larger and packed with more instruments than the four Mars rovers preceding it, Perseverance is set to build on previous findings that liquid water once flowed on the Martian surface and that carbon and other minerals altered by water and considered precursors to the evolution of life were present. Perseverance’s payload also includes demonstration projects that could help pave the way for eventual human exploration of Mars, including a device to convert the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into pure oxygen.
The box-shaped tool, the first built to extract a natural resource of direct use to humans from an extraterrestrial environment, could prove invaluable for future human life support on Mars and for producing rocket propellant to fly astronauts home. Another experimental prototype carried by Perseverance is a miniature helicopter designed to test the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. If successful, the 4-pound (1.8-kg) helicopter could lead to low-altitude aerial surveillance of distant worlds.
The multi-stage spacecraft carrying the rover soared into the top of Martian atmosphere at nearly 16 times the speed of sound on Earth, angled to produce aerodynamic lift while jet thrusters adjusted its trajectory. A jarring, supersonic parachute inflation further slowed the descent, giving way to deployment of a rocket-powered “sky crane” vehicle that flew to a safe landing spot, lowered the rover on tethers, then flew off to crash a safe distance away. Perseverance’s immediate predecessor, the rover Curiosity, landed in 2012 and remains in operation, as does the stationary Lander InSight, which arrived in 2018 to study the deep interior of Mars. TW