/NASA Lands Perseverance Rover Safely on Mars After ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’

NASA Lands Perseverance Rover Safely on Mars After ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’

Now the search for life on Mars begins in earnest. After a seven-month, 292-million-mile journey, NASA’s fastest and best-equipped rover ever—Perseverance—touched down safely Thursday on the red planet, NASA officials said.

The $2.7 billion rover landed in an ancient lake bed called Jezero Crater at about 3:55 p.m. EST on Thursday, the jubilant officials said.

The two-year Perseverance mission is the latest and most ambitious effort by NASA to find evidence of past life on Mars. The 1-ton, SUV-size rover will spend the next two years prospecting for evidence of ancient microbes. It will pack up any promising soil or rock samples into small tubes, to be cached for retrieval by future missions and brought back to Earth for analysis.

“Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars,” Swati Mohan, guidance, navigation and controls operations engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said as the mission control room around her erupted in cheers, whistles and applause.

Bristling with 23 cameras, sensors, a laser and a drill-equipped robotic arm, Perseverance will spend the next two years prospecting for rock or soil specimens that might harbor evidence of ancient life.

“It will attempt to answer an age-old question that has eluded humanity for generations: whether life has ever existed elsewhere beyond our own planet,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the space agency’s science mission directorate in Washington, said of the Perseverance mission.

NASA and the European Space Agency are discussing several mission scenarios that might return the samples by 2031, NASA officials said.

Though it is now a barren place of icy dunes, dust devils, dead volcanoes and subzero winds, scientists believe Mars in its remote past may have been a comparatively lush, warm world—one suitable for the chemistry of life.

The surface of Mars is seen in a photo transmitted back after the successful landing of the NASA Perseverance rover Thursday afternoon.



Photo:

NASA

Able to cover ground three times faster than any previous Mars rover, Perseverance will look for traces of organic matter, which could be evidence of primordial microbes or other simple life-forms. Other places in the solar system—from the searing clouds of Venus to the frozen oceans of moons around Jupiter and Saturn—might also have the potential for life. But those places are considered even less accessible than Mars.

The Challenges of Landing on Mars

NASA mission engineers call landing on Mars “seven minutes of terror.” Hundreds of things have to go perfectly. The landing zone is the smallest NASA has ever targeted. The spacecraft, though, is on its own all the way down, guided solely by pre-programmed commands in its onboard computer. That’s because it takes about 11 minutes for a signal to travel from Earth to Mars, far too long for direct hands-on control. Here is how landing on Mars worked:

Source: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Brian McGill/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

This is the first time since the Viking missions of the 1970s that NASA has sent a spacecraft to Mars specifically designed to search for life, said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division. Those early missions failed to detect any conclusive life signs. “We know now the experiments we designed back then weren’t quite the right way to go about detecting the presence of life,” she said.

Perseverance is accompanied by the first helicopter to be transported to another world. NASA engineers expect to conduct several test flights of the four-pound drone, called Ingenuity. These would be the first powered controlled flights on another planet.

“It will truly be a Wright brothers moment, but on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Getting Perseverance and Ingenuity on the ground wasn’t easy. To land safely, more than two million lines of computer software code, thousands of electronic parts and 70 pyrotechnic devices all had to perform flawlessly.

“The landing is the spectacular crux move of this mission,” said Ken Farley, Perseverance project scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

Touch Down

On Feb. 18th, Perseverance became the eighth spacecraft to successfully land on Mars since NASA’s Viking 1 landed there in 1976.

Failed landing or swift malfunction

Rosalind Franklin, expected to land on Mars in 2023, is a joint effort between Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities and the European Space Agency.

Source: NASA

Dylan Moriarty/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Failed landing or swift malfunction

Rosalind Franklin, expected to land on Mars in 2023, is a joint effort between Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities and the European Space Agency.

Source: NASA

Dylan Moriarty/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Failed landing or swift malfunction

Rosalind Franklin, expected to land on Mars in 2023, is a joint effort between Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities and the European Space Agency.

Source: NASA

Dylan Moriarty/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Failed landing or quick malfunction

Rosalind Franklin, expected to land on Mars in 2023, is a joint effort between Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities and the European Space Agency.

Source: NASA

Dylan Moriarty/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Following a harrowing plunge through the salmon pink skies and blue clouds of Mars—what NASA engineers call “seven minutes of terror”—the lander carrying Perseverance and Ingenuity settled safely onto the smallest, most rugged landing zone upon which the space agency has ever attempted a landing.

Once the lander began its automated descent, mission controllers on Earth had no contact with it—and no way to control it—until after it landed. Radio transmissions take 11 minutes, 22 seconds to travel from one planet to the other—far too long to allow for controllers here on Earth to guide the craft.

If all goes well, NASA’s Perseverance rover will join four previous robotic vehicles that pioneered exploration of the red planet.

As the first rover on Mars, Sojourner was small and simple. It was about as long as a clarinet and weighed 25 lbs. It took pictures and sampled rocks. The winds of Mars kept dust off its solar panels, allowing it to last longer than expected.

Spirit was one of two larger rovers sent as a pair. Each one was about 5 feet long and weighed about 383 pounds. Spirit found rocks suggestive of hot springs, photographed a dust devil, and scaled a Martian mountain before becoming trapped in loose sands.

Still active, the Curiosity rover is about 9 feet long and weighs almost a ton. It gathered evidence that the crater basin where it landed was once an oasis.

Identical to Spirit, Opportunity landed on the opposite side of Mars. There, it discovered convincing signs that water had once flowed on the surface.

Set to land on Feb. 18, NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, is about 10 feet long and weighs just over a ton. It carries seven instruments to test for evidence of past Martian life and prepare samples for return to Earth. It also carries an experimental helicopter for test flights.

Source: NASA

Dylan Moriarty/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

If all goes well, NASA’s Perseverance rover will join four previous robotic vehicles that pioneered exploration of the red planet.

As the first rover on Mars, Sojourner was small and simple. It was about as long as a clarinet and weighed 25 lbs. It took pictures and sampled rocks. The winds of Mars kept dust off its solar panels, allowing it to last longer than expected.

Spirit was one of two larger rovers sent as a pair. Each one was about 5 feet long and weighed about 383 pounds. Spirit found rocks suggestive of hot springs, photographed a dust devil, and scaled a Martian mountain before becoming trapped in loose sands.

Still active, the Curiosity rover is about 9 feet long and weighs almost a ton. It gathered evidence that the crater basin where it landed was once an oasis.

Identical to Spirit, Opportunity landed on the opposite side of Mars. There, it discovered convincing signs that water had once flowed on the surface.

Set to land on Feb. 18, NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, is about 10 feet long and weighs just over a ton. It carries seven instruments to test for evidence of past Martian life and prepare samples for return to Earth. It also carries an experimental helicopter for test flights.

Source: NASA

Dylan Moriarty/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

If all goes well, NASA’s Perseverance rover will join four previous robotic vehicles that pioneered exploration of the red planet.

As the first rover on Mars, Sojourner was small and simple. It was about as long as a clarinet and weighed 25 lbs. It took pictures and sampled rocks. The winds of Mars kept dust off its solar panels, allowing it to last longer than expected.

Spirit was one of two larger rovers sent as a pair. Each one was about 5 feet long and weighed about 383 pounds. Spirit found rocks suggestive of hot springs, photographed a dust devil, and scaled a Martian mountain before becoming trapped in loose sands.

Identical to Spirit, Opportunity landed on the opposite side of Mars. There, it discovered convincing signs that water had once flowed on the surface.

Still active, the Curiosity rover is about 9 feet long and weighs almost a ton. It gathered evidence that the crater basin where it landed was once an oasis.

Set to land on Feb. 18, NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, is about 10 feet long and weighs just over a ton. It carries seven instruments to test for evidence of past Martian life and prepare samples for return to Earth. It also carries an experimental helicopter for test flights.

Source: NASA

Dylan Moriarty/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

If all goes well, NASA’s Perseverance rover will join four previous robotic vehicles that pioneered exploration of the red planet.

As the first rover on Mars, Sojourner was small and simple. It was about as long as a clarinet and weighed 25 lbs. It took pictures and sampled rocks. The winds of Mars kept dust off its solar panels, allowing it to last longer than expected.

Spirit was one of two larger rovers sent as a pair. Each one was about 5 feet long and weighed about 383 pounds. Spirit found rocks suggestive of hot springs, photographed a dust devil, and scaled a Martian mountain before becoming trapped in loose sands.

Identical to Spirit, Opportunity landed on the opposite side of Mars. There, it discovered convincing signs that water had once flowed on the surface.

Still active, the Curiosity rover is about 9 feet long and weighs almost a ton. It gathered evidence that the crater basin where it landed was once an oasis.

Set to land on Feb. 18, NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, is about 10 feet long and weighs just over a ton. It carries seven instruments to test for evidence of past Martian life and prepare samples for return to Earth. It also carries an experimental helicopter for test flights.

Source: NASA

Dylan Moriarty/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The lander, which carries Perseverance and Ingenuity inside a protective shell, was traveling at about 12,100 miles an hour—about 3 miles a second—when it entered the Martian atmosphere. Friction from the thin air slowed the craft and heated it to a temperature of about 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit. That is hot enough to melt cast iron.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

Do you think Mars holds any prospects for human habitation? Why or why not? Join the conversation below.

While still traveling at twice the speed of sound, the lander next deployed a 70-foot-wide parachute, the largest high-speed chute ever constructed. Seconds later, the craft jettisoned its protective heat shield and fired its retro rockets. Once the lander neared the surface, it lowered Perseverance on cables, like a crane lowering a heavy package, onto a safe spot amid the boulders, trenches, dunes and steep cliffs of Jezero Crater.

China’s Tiawen-1 probe, which entered orbit around Mars last week, is expected to make the country’s first landing on the planet in May.

China, the UAE and the U.S. all have spacecraft visiting Mars in February to study the Red Planet. WSJ explains how out-of-this-world technology is being used by NASA’s Perseverance and China’s Tianwen-1 in the search for evidence of life beyond our planet. Photo: NASA

Write to Robert Lee Hotz at sciencejournal@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8