NASA's Perseverance rover lands on Mars

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NASA has unveiled the first pictures from its fifth Mars rover, Perseverance, after a successful landing on the red planet’s Jezero crater at approximately 3:55 p.m. Thursday.

“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States, and space exploration globally – when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, so to speak, to rewrite the textbooks,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a press release. “The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission embodies our nation’s spirit of persevering even in the most challenging of situations, inspiring, and advancing science and exploration.”

Perseverance, the most technologically advanced robot NASA has sent to date, traveled 293 million miles to reach Mars over the course of more than six months after launching on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Station on July 30. It will remain on Mars for nearly two years, searching for signs of ancient life and exploring the planet’s surface.

The mission will help prepare the agency for future human exploration on Mars in the 2030s.

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The $2.7 billion rover, built in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is about 10 feet long, 9 feet wide, seven feet tall and about 2,260 pounds, roughly 278 pounds heavier than its predecessor, Curiosity.

Perserverance is designed to drive an average of 650 feet per Martian day and features seven scientific instruments, a robotic arm that reaches about seven feet long, a rock drill. It is nuclear powered, using a plutonium generator provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. 

The scientific instruments on the rover include a camera designed to take high-definition video, panoramic color and 3D images of the Martian surface and features in the atmosphere with a zoom lens to magnify distant targets, a group of sensors to measure weather and monitor dust on the planet’s surface, a system that will be used to produce oxygen from the Martian carbon-dioxide atmosphere, an x-ray and camera system that can measure the chemical makeup of rocks and analyze features as small as a grain of salt, a ground-penetrating radar system to analyze geologic features under Mars’ surface, a group of cameras, spectrometers, and a laser to search for organics and minerals as well as take clse up images of rock grains and surface textures, and a camera to identify the chemical composition of rocks and soils, including their atomic and molecular makeup.

In addition, the rover carries a commemorative plate to honor COVID-19 healthcare workers and has the names of 10.9 million people stenciled into three of its silicon chips with the words “Explore as one” written in Morse code.

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Perseverance’s landing involved the “seven minutes of terror,” a fiery atmospheric entry in a protective capsule which involved a parachute-assisted descent. The “seven minutes of terror” is referred to by NASA engineers as the time it takes to enter the Martian atmosphere and descend to the surface. 

The spacecraft is guided solely by pre-programmed controls in its onboard computer, due to a roughly 11 minute signal delay between Earth and Mars. 

Perseverance entered into the atmosphere at about 12,100 miles per hour in a protective capsule. The spacecraft then deployed a parachute to begin slowing down before removing its protective capsule and heat shield. The rover’s landing mechanism then fired eight rocket thrusters to slow down from about 170 miles per hour to about two miles per hour and guide it to a proper landing spot before using a sky crane to lower onto Mars’ surface.

Perseverance landed in the Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide basin in the northern hemisphere of Mars, where NASA believes a body of water about the size of Lake Tahoe used to flow. The Perseverance science team believes this ancient river delta and lake deposits could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life.

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Perseverance is also carrying the Ingenuity helicopter, a technology demonstration that will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Ingenuinity will be deployed in a few months from underneath the rover in a flat area. Perseverance will then drive about 330 feet away to capture the flight attempt with its cameras. Once Ingenuity’s test flights are complete, the rover’s search for evidence of ancient microbial life will begin. 

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with the European Space Agency, will send spacecraft to Mars to collect the cached samples recovered from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

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