19 Feb 2021 15:13 IST

NASA’s Perseverance rover makes historic landing on Mars

Perseverance’s arrival in Jezero Crater was the trickiest NASA has ever attempted

A NASA rover streaked through the orange Martian sky and landed on the planet on Friday, accomplishing the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on Mars.

Ground controllers at the space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, leaped to their feet, thrust their arms in the air and cheered in both triumph and relief on receiving confirmation that the six-wheeled Perseverance had touched down on the red planet, long a deathtrap for incoming spacecraft.

“Now the amazing science starts,” a jubilant Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's science mission chief, said at a news conference, where he theatrically ripped up the contingency plan in the event of a failure and threw the document over his shoulders.

Most advanced rover

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 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. 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.

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.”

Nail-biting landing

Perseverance was on its own during its descent, a manoeuver often described by NASA as “seven minutes of terror.” Flight controllers waited helplessly as the preprogrammed spacecraft hit the thin Martian atmosphere at 12,100 mph (19,500 kph), or 16 times the speed of sound, slowing as it plummeted. It released its 70-foot (21-meter) parachute and then used a rocket-steered platform known as a sky crane to lower the rover the final 60 or so feet (18 meters) to the surface.

It took a nail-biting 11 1/2 minutes for the signal confirming the landing to reach Earth, setting off back-slapping and fist-bumping among flight controllers wearing masks against the coronavirus.

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.

“Take that, Jezero!” a controller called out.

Nation's pride

NASA said that the descent was flawless and that the rover came down in a “parking lot" — a relatively flat spot amid hazardous rocks. Hours after the landing, Matt Wallace, NASA deputy project manager, reported that the spacecraft was in great shape.

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 $3 billion.

“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.

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