NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover set down on an ancient lakebed after a flawless plunge into the Martian atmosphere Thursday, achieving an unprecedented pinpoint landing while delivering the most sophisticated suite of science payloads ever flown to another planet.
The $2.4 billion Perseverance rover arrived at Jezero Crater, a basin that scientists say was once flooded with liquid water, after a nail-biting descent to the Red Planet’s rust-colored surface.
“Wow! We have a science mission,” said Ken Farley, Perseverance project scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The nuclear-powered mobile robot capped a seven-month journey from a launch pad at Cape Canaveral with a high-speed dive into the Martian atmosphere. A heat shield cocooned the rover as it streaked through the rarefied air at more than 12,100 mph (19,500 kilometers per hour).
After surviving temperatures near 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit (1,300 degrees Celsius), the rover deployed a supersonic parachute, which billowed open to slow the spacecraft to subsonic speed. Perseverance next jettisoned its heat shield, allowing a landing radar and cameras to scan the Martian surface for a safe touchdown site.
The rover’s aerodynamic backshell then released Perseverance’s rocket-powered descent stage to do the rest of the braking before landing. Eight throttleable engines on the rocket pack slowed the craft’s speed to nearly 0 mph, and Nylon cords lowered the one-ton rover to the surface.
Once Perseverance’s wheels contacted Mars, the descent stage cut the cords and diverted to crash a safe distance away, leaving the rover safely on the ground at Jezero Crater.
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“We arrived at Mars moving at about 12,000 mph roughly, and just in seven short minutes, we had to slow down and gently put Perseverance down in Jezero Crater,” said Matt Wallace, Perseverance’s deputy project manager at JPL. “The system just performed flawlessly, getting through 10 or 12 Gs of deceleration, the supersonic parachute deployment, eight big main engines had to fire ,our terrain relative navigation hazard avoidance system had to perform the way it was designed. It’s never easy.”
Within minutes, the rover beamed back two low-resolution black-and-white images from its hazard cameras, providing the first-ever views of Jezero’s landscape. The images are a taste of what’s to come, and scientists expect to have high-definition video, color panoramas, and the first sound recordings from Mars beginning as soon as Friday.
In a post-landing press conference, Wallace said Perseverance is in “great shape” after arriving on Mars, and is ready for the next phase of a mission packed with firsts.
Ground teams were along for the ride Thursday. With Mars positioned some 127 million miles (204 million kilometers) from Earth, the one-way travel time for radio signals Thursday was more than 11 minutes.
That meant Perseverance followed pre-programmed commands and employed control software to land itself.
“The vehicle is going on a roller coaster ride, and you are, too,” said Allen Chen, Perseverance’s entry, descent, and landing lead at JPL.
“Things seem to be working the way you want them to go, and you start feeling good … then your stomach drops, then things are OK again,” Chen said.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster ride all the way down, and you’re second-guessing yourself as you go, even though it’s already happened,” Chen said, referring to the 11-minute time way. “It’s kind of crazy.”
Allen Chen, the Perseverance rover’s entry, descent, and landing lead, says the rover…