NASA’s Perseverance rover stuck its landing on Mars on Thursday, becoming the biggest and fastest rover that has ever reached the surface of the red planet and kicking off a decade of work leading to a coveted Mars sample return mission.
After completing a risky series of maneuvers nicknamed the “seven minutes of terror,” the rover signaled that it had safely arrived at its target site, Jezero Crater.
Mission staff at NASA, along with space enthusiasts around the world, celebrated the good news from the rover, which took about 11 minutes to reach Earth once Perseverance’s wheels hit the ground. Perseverance is the ninth robot that NASA has successfully landed on Mars, but though the agency has a good track record, nothing is guaranteed when trying to reach the surface of another planet.
This is especially true in the case of Perseverance, which has just pulled off the most dangerous landing on Mars yet. The rover is heavier than its predecessors, making it trickier to slam on the brakes before hitting the Martian surface, plus Jezero Crater contains extremely hazardous terrain that could have easily scuttled a safe landing.
Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater with the help of Terrain Relative Navigation, an imaging system that guided the spacecraft to a safe spot. Over the coming years, it will travel across this variable landscape, which was once an ancient lakebed more than 3.6 billion years ago. The rover can travel at 152 meters per hour; that may seem slow by Earth standards, but it is three times faster than any previous Mars rover.
Perseverance is charged with seeking signs of life that may have existed during Mars’ warmer, wetter phase. It is equipped with a four-pound helicopter, called Ingenuity, which will help scout out the optimal routes for the rover. The mission also carries a suite of instruments that includes spectrometers, a radar system, a camera with an impressive zoom function, and a novel experiment that will attempt to produce oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide, in preparation for future human missions to Mars.
As it wanders around its new home, Perseverance will collect and cache dozens of samples. Eventually, NASA and the European Space Agency plan to send another “fetch rover” to Jezero Crater to pick up the cached vials and return them to Earth—a long-standing goal in the planetary exploration community.
Perseverance is the last of three missions that arrived at Mars this month, after the Emirati Hope orbiter and China’s Tianwen-1 mission both entered Martian orbit last week. Hope is currently vaulting itself into its target orbit, while Tianwen-1 is carrying China’s first Mars rover, which the nation will attempt to land on the planet in May.
These new arrivals, along with ongoing missions such as NASA's Curiosity rover and InSight lander, will all contribute to new revelations about Mars in the coming decades.