It took a tension-filled 11½ 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 backslapping colleagues wearing masks against the coronavirus.
The rover lifted off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars, journeying some 300 million miles in nearly seven months.
The biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, Perseverance became the ninth spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, every one of them from the United States, beginning in the 1970s.
The carsize, plutonium-powered vehicle arrived at Jezero Crater, hitting NASA’s smallest and trickiest target yet: a 5-mile-by-4-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and fields of rock. Scientists believe that if life ever flourished on Mars, it would have happened 3 billion to 4 billion years ago, when water still flowed on the planet.
Over the next two years, Percy, as it is nicknamed, will use its seven-foot arm to drill down and collect rock samples with possible signs of bygone microscopic life. Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside on Mars to be retrieved by a fetch rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship. The goal is to get them back to Earth as early as 2031.
Scientists hope to answer one of the central questions of theology, philosophy and space exploration.
“Are we alone in this sort of vast cosmic desert, just flying through space, or is life much more common? Does it just emerge whenever and wherever the conditions are ripe?” said deputy project scientist Ken Williford. “We’re really on the verge of being able to potentially answer these enormous questions.”
The rover carries a four-pound helicopter called Ingenuity, which will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on a planet other than Earth.
Perseverance was on its own during the NASA-described “seven minutes of terror” descent.
Flight controllers waited helplessly as the preprogrammed spacecraft hit the thin, 95 percent carbon dioxide Martian atmosphere at 12,100 miles per hour, or 16 times the speed of sound, slowing as it plummeted.
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 promptly sent back a grainy, black-and-white photo of Mars’s pockmarked surface, the rover’s shadow visible in the picture. The rover appeared to have touched down about 35 yards from the nearest rocks.
“Take that, Jezero!” a controller called out.
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.