NASA said on Thursday its rover, Perseverance, has successfully landed on Mars to mine for evidence of whether life once existed there.
"Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars," said operations lead Swati Mohan as mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory headquarters erupted in cheers.
The US space agency said the six-wheeled rover hurtled through the thin, orange atmosphere and settled onto the surface Thursday in the mission’s riskiest maneuver yet. Mars has long been a deathtrap for incoming spacecraft.
Perseverance will collect geological samples that will be brought back to Earth in about a decade to be analyzed for signs of ancient microscopic life.
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, traveling some 300 million miles in nearly seven months.
Perseverance, the biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, became the ninth spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, every one of them from the US.
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.”