NASA’s science rover Perseverance, the most advanced astrobiology laboratory ever sent to another world, streaked through the Martian atmosphere on Thursday 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.
Mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers as radio signals confirmed that the six-wheeled rover had survived its perilous descent and arrived within its target zone inside Jezero Crater, site of a long-vanished Martian lake bed.
The robotic vehicle sailed through space for nearly seven months, covering 293 million miles (472 million km) before piercing the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour (19,000 km per hour) to begin its approach to touchdown on the planet’s surface.
The spacecraft’s self-guided descent and landing during a complex series of maneuvers that NASA dubbed “the seven minutes of terror” stands as the most elaborate and challenging feat in the annals of robotic spaceflight.
“It really is the beginning of a new era,” NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said earlier in the day during NASA’s webcast of the event.
The landing represented the riskiest part of two-year, $2.7 billion endeavor 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 biosignatures 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. Thursday’s landing came as a triumph for a pandemic-weary United States in the grips of economic dislocation caused by the COVID-19 public health crisis.