NASA rover Perseverance landed safely Thursday on Mars to begin an ambitious mission to search for signs of past Martian life and obtain samples of soil and rock that could someday be hauled back to Earth for study in laboratories.
“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” announced Swati Mohan, the guidance and control operations lead for the mission at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Cheers, clapping and fist-pumps erupted in the control room, which was half-empty because of the coronavirus pandemic. Someone shouted: “TRN, TRN,” referring to the terrain relative navigation system that allowed Perseverance to land in a rugged area full of natural hazards.
Perseverance, the first multibillion-dollar NASA mission to Mars in nine years, quickly produced two low-resolution images of the landing site — a forlorn landscape pocked with small craters. Dust kicked up by the landing covered the glass shields on the cameras. The pair of photos showed the rover casting a shadow on the Martian landscape.
Perseverance used its autonomous guidance system to avoid hazardous terrain in the target area, an ancient lake bed known as Jezero Crater. The touchdown followed the “seven minutes of terror” — in homage to the emotional state of engineers rooting for success. Mars is a notoriously difficult place to land a spacecraft.
Going back more than half a century, about half of all robotic missions to the planet have failed, although NASA appears to have mastered the feat over the past two decades. The rover Curiosity, which landed in 2012 far to the east of Perseverance’s location, remains operational. Perseverance is similar in scale but is slightly heavier and has about 50 percent more scientific instrumentation, according to NASA.