This illustration provided by NASA shows the Perseverance rover, bottom, landing on Mars. Hundreds of critical events must execute perfectly and exactly on time for the rover to land safely on Feb. 18, 2021. Entry, Descent, and Landing, or "EDL," begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of the Martian atmosphere, traveling nearly 12,500 mph (20,000 kph). EDL ends about seven minutes after atmospheric entry, with Perseverance stationary on the Martian surface. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

‘Touchdown confirmed!’: NASA rover lands on Mars to look for signs of ancient life

Perseverance becomes the ninth spacecraft since the 1970s to successfully land on the red planet

A NASA rover streaked through the orange Martian sky and landed on the planet Thursday, 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.

It took a tension-filled 11 1/2 minutes for the signal to reach Earth.

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life,” flight controller Swati Mohan announced to back-slapping, fist-bumping colleagues wearing masks against the coronavirus.

RELATED: You can watch NASA’s Rover landing on Mars today

RELATED: Mars jumps out from the night sky across B.C.

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 U.S.

The car-size, plutonium-powered vehicle arrived at Jezero Crater, hitting NASA’s smallest and trickiest target yet: a 5-by-4-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and fields of rock. 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 7-foot (2-meter) arm to drill down and collect rock samples with possible signs of bygone microscopic life. Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside on Mars to be retrieved by a fetch rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship. 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.”

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.

Perseverance was on its own during its descent, a manoeuvr 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 metres) to the surface.

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 rover appeared to have touched down about 35 yards from the nearest rocks.

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

Mars has proved a treacherous place. In the span of less than three months in 1999, a U.S. spacecraft was destroyed upon entering orbit because engineers had mixed up metric and English units, and an American lander crashed on Mars after its engines cut out prematurely.

In addition to mining the rocks, Perseverance will conduct an experiment in which it will convert small amounts of the mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere into oxygen, a process that could be a boon to future astronauts by providing breathable air and an ingredient for rocket fuel.

The rover is also equipped with a record 25 cameras and two microphones, many of them turned on during descent. Among the never-before-seen views NASA intends to send back in the next couple days: the enormous supersonic parachute billowing open and the ground getting closer.

“A feast for the eyes and ears. It’s really going to be spectacular,” observed Arizona State University’s Jim Bell, lead scientist for a pair of mast cameras that will serve as the rover’s eyes.

NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to bring the rocks home. Perseverance’s mission alone costs nearly $3 billion.

The only way to confirm — or rule out — signs of past life is to analyze 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,” David Parker, the European Space Agency’s director of human and robotic exploration, said on the eve of landing.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

— Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

A full-scale model of the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity is displayed for the media at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Just Posted

A health worker holds a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered to members of the police at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Mainz, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP)
43 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

368 cases in the region remain active

A member of the Avalanche Canada South Rockies field team gathers important snowpack data that is used to produce daily avalanche forecasts for the region. Photo by Jennifer Coulter.
Warming temperatures increase avalanche risk heading into the weekend

Warm temperatures impact conditions, human behaviour

Phase four of the Kicking Horse Canyon project will twin the winding stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway just east of Golden. (file photo)
Trans-Canada Highway reduced to one lane east of Golden

It’s the first of the Kicking Horse Canyon Phase 4 closures which will ramp up in the coming weeks

A nurse performs a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Interior Health reports 16 new COVID-19 cases

423 cases remain active in the region

Vaccines are expected to become more widely available as the rollout speeds up in B.C. Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing
Sleeves up Golden – vaccine rollout details released

More details about the provincial rollout were released yesterday

Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Dr. Bonnie Henry pauses for a moment as she gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for British Columbia in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
7 additional deaths and 542 new COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Provincial health officials reported 18 new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern

A protest has been planned for March 5, 2020 over Penticton council’s decision to reject an application from BC Housing to keep an emergency winter shelter open over a year longer than originally planned. (Jesse Day - Western News)
‘Bring your tent’: Protest planned in Penticton’s Gyro Park over winter shelter closure

Protesters plan to show council ‘what the result of their decision will look like’

Although B.C. has not made masks mandatory in public indoor spaces, some business owners are requiring all customers to wear them before entering their store. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
EDITORIAL: Heightened tension over face masks

Incidents of anger and conflicts over mandated masks happening too frequently

John Hordyk said it isn’t fair to just look at COVID-19 deaths as many survivors are experiencing long-term impacts, himself included. (Photo by Rachel Muise)
Not getting better: Revelstoke man diagnosed with post-COVID-19 syndrome

‘I hope the damage isn’t long term, but it could be permanent’

The City of Vancouver estimates there are 3,500 Canada geese in the city right now, and that number is growing. (Bruce Hogarth)
Help tame Vancouver’s Canada goose population by reporting nests: park officials

The city is asking residents to be on the lookout so staff can remove nests or addle eggs

Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson (Office of the Chief Justice)
Judge questions whether B.C.’s top doctor appreciated right to religious freedom

Lawyer for province says Dr. Henry has outlined the reasons for her orders publicly

Penticton mayor John Vassilaki responded to BC Housing minster David Eby’s remarks that the city has put themselves at risk of creating a tent city Wednesday, March 3, 2020. (Western News file photo)
Penticton mayor calls out BC Housing minister for ‘irresponsible fear-mongering’

Council recently rejected BC Housing’s request to keep a winter shelter open longer than first planned

A sample of guns seized at the Pacific Highway border crossing from the U.S. into B.C. in 2014. Guns smuggled from the U.S. are used in criminal activity, often associated with drug gangs. (Canada Border Service Agency)
B.C. moves to seize vehicles transporting illegal firearms

Bill bans sale of imitation or BB guns to young people

BC Housing minister David Eby is concerned that Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter will result in a “tent city” similar to this one in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / Black Press file)
‘Disappointed and baffled’ B.C. housing minister warns of tent city in Penticton

Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter could create tent city, says David Eby

Most Read