A daring mission to unearth the past secrets of Mars and look for ancient life has achieved a major milestone.
A NASA rover streaked through the orange Martian sky and landed on the planet in the early hours of Friday morning, accomplishing the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could reveal whether life ever existed on the so-called Red Planet.
Ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, erupted in cheers with a palpable sense of both triumph and relief upon receiving confirmation that the six-wheeled Perseverance craft had touched down on the notoriously difficult terrain for incoming spacecraft.
As scientists waited nervously, the craft was on its own during its descent in a manoeuvre often described by NASA as “seven minutes of terror.”
Flight controllers waited helplessly as the preprogrammed spacecraft hit the thin Martian atmosphere at 19,500 km/h, or 16 times the speed of sound, slowing as it plummeted.
It released its 21-metre parachute and then used a rocket-steered platform known as a sky crane to lower the rover the final 18 metres or so to the surface. Just over 11 minutes later, a signal reached Earth confirming the safe landing, unleashing scenes of joy.
— NASA (@NASA) February 18, 2021
On the verge of answering 'enormous questions'
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.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief, said at a news conference Friday: "Now the amazing science starts".
Craft's first photos from Mars
Perseverance promptly sent back two grainy, black-and-white photos of Mars’ pockmarked, pimply-looking surface, the rover’s shadow visible in the frame of one picture.
The landing marks the third visit to Mars in just over a week. Two spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China swung into orbit around Mars on successive days last week.
All three missions lifted off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars, journeying some 300 million miles in nearly seven months.
Perseverance, the biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, became the ninth spacecraft since the 1970s to successfully land on Mars, every one of them from the US.
The car-size, plutonium-powered vehicle arrived at Jezero Crater, hitting NASA’s smallest and trickiest target yet: a six-by-eight kilometre strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and rocks.
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 2-metre arm to drill down and collect rock samples containing possible signs of bygone microscopic life.
Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside to be retrieved eventually by another rover and brought homeward 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.
Two older NASA landers are still humming along on Mars: 2012′s Curiosity rover and 2018′s InSight.
'Nothing is beyond realm of possibility': Biden
President Joe Biden tweeted congratulations over the landing, saying: “Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.”
NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to bring the rocks home. Perseverance’s mission alone costs nearly US$3 billion (A$3.86 billion).
Congratulations to NASA and everyone whose hard work made Perseverance’s historic landing possible. Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility. pic.twitter.com/NzSxW6nw4k
— President Biden (@POTUS) February 18, 2021
The only way to confirm — or rule out — signs of past life is to analyse the samples in the world’s best labs.
Instruments small enough to be sent to Mars wouldn’t have the necessary precision.
“It’s really the most extraordinary, mind-boggingly complicated and will-be history-making exploration campaign,” said David Parker, the European agency’s director of human and robotic exploration.
Former astronaut and one-time NASA science chief John Grunsfeld tweeted that Perseverance’s landing was “exactly the good news and inspiration we need right now.”
“Reminds us all that we will persevere Covid and political turmoil and that the best is yet to come,” he said.
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