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

FILE – Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have agreed to sign a memorandum on rights and title with B.C. and Ottawa, but elected chiefs are demanding it be called off over lack of consultation. (Thom Barker photo)
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Lake Babine Nation get provincial funding for land, title rights

Government says it’s a new, flexible model for future agreements between Canada, B.C. and First Nations.

Kieran Christison, manager of Daybreak Farms in Terrace inspects eggs on Oct. 30, 2020. Christison wants to transition to a zero waste, cage-free facility. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Daybreak Farms aiming to achieve zero-waste, cage-free facility

Kieran Christison, manager, presented the farm’s future plans to Terrace city council

Mercedes Trigo, assistant manager, said that Trigo’s Lifestyle Store in Terrace has experienced four broken windows and an attempted break-in recently, leaving her feeling unsupported by bystanders and the police. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
Trigo’s management frustrated by property damage, theft

In a little over a month there have been four broken windows and an attempted break-in at the store

Two RCMP officers have been recognized for their actions in responding to an incident involving a man with a weapon at 4501 Park Ave. on the afternoon of April 27, 2020. RCMP say it was an isolated incident and there is no danger to the general public. (Jake Wray photo)
Terrace RCMP officers recognized for acts of bravery

Two involved in arrest of armed suspect

Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: B.C. lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week file photo)
RCMP intercept vehicle fleeing with infant taken from Kamloops hospital

The baby was at the hospital receiving life-saving care

Vancouver Police Const. Deepak Sood is under review by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. after making comments to a harm reduction advocate Sunday, April 11. (Screen grab)
VIDEO: Vancouver officer convicted of uttering threats under watchdog review again

Const. Deepak Sood was recorded Sunday saying ‘I’ll smack you’ and ‘go back to selling drugs’ to a harm reduction advocate

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate persists, 1,005 new cases Friday

Hospitalization up to 425, six more virus-related deaths

Premier John Horgan receives a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the pharmacy in James Bay Thrifty’s Foods in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. Premier John Horgan gets AstraZeneca shot, encourages others

27% of residents in B.C. have now been vaccinated against COVID-19

The Nautical Dog Cafe at Skaha marina is getting its patio ready in hopes Mother Nature will provide where provincial restrictions have taken away indoor dining. (Facebook)
‘A lot of instability’: B.C. restaurants in layoff limbo

As COVID-19 cases stay high, restaurants in British Columbia are closed to indoor dining

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Expectations high as Trudeau Liberals get ready to unveil first pandemic budget

The Liberals will look to thread an economic needle with Monday’s budget

Coldstream students took over the Your Letters page in the April 9, 2021, edition of the Vernon Morning Star to offer advice to adults about COVID-19. Interior Health took notice and offered their praise. (Vernon Morning Star)
‘We can get rid of COVID together’: B.C. kids share heartwarming advice

Grade 2 and 3 classes from a North Okanagan elementary took over Letters page of this Black Press newspaper

Since April 4, 38 flights with COVID-19 cases have departed from Vancouver International Airport, while 23 arrived. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Vancouver the largest source of domestic flights with COVID-19 cases: data

This month alone, 38 flights with COVID-19 cases have departed from Vancouver International Airport, while 23 arrived

Most Read