Perseverance’s pictures from Mars show NASA rover’s new home

The newest Martian, a robot named Perseverance, is alive and well after its first day and night on the red planet, NASA scientists and engineers said Friday. Members of the triumphant team managing the spacecraft were exhilarated as they shared pictures captured by its cameras during landing and after the rover reached the surface.

“As scientists, we’re used to the engineers showing us animations of the rover, and that’s at first what I thought this was,” said Katie Stack Morgan, a deputy project scientist for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, referring to one of the pictures. “And then I did a double take and said that’s the actual rover.”

The picture shared by NASA showed the rover during the final stages of its landing, when a piece of the spacecraft called the sky crane, which is sometimes compared to a jet pack, gently lowered the vehicle to the surface.

“We are overwhelmed with excitement and overjoyed to have successfully landed another rover on the surface of Mars,” said Adam Steltzner, chief engineer for the rover mission.

An image provided by NASA shows one of the first images from the Perseverance rover, with a protective cap over the camera’s lens, that were released on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (NASA TV via The New York Times)

The system was also used during the landing of the Curiosity rover in 2012 and contributed to the safe arrival of both robotic explorers on the tricky terrain of the fourth planet from the sun. After the rover set down, the sky crane flew away to a safe location where its landing would not cause any damage to the mission.

Another photograph, taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a NASA spacecraft that has been studying Mars from space since 2006, showed the rover hanging from its parachute as it drifted over the Martian terrain. The rover hangs over Jezero Crater, the site that NASA selected for its latest Mars landing.

The rover landed on a “pool-table-flat” spot littered with small rocks in the middle of Jezero Crater, thought to be the dry basin of a lake that existed 3.8 billion years ago. It is sitting near the edge of a rougher area of fractured terrain that the scientists have named Canyon de Chelly after the Navajo site of the same name in Arizona. The rover is about 1.25 miles from a river delta scientists think is a prime spot to look for chemical signatures of ancient microbial life.

And so the adventure begins.

Showing off a close-up image of one of the rover’s wheels surrounded by small rocks with pitted surfaces, Hallie Gengl Abarca, an engineer who leads work on the rover’s data systems, said, “One of the amazing things is now that we have this image data, now we can hand this over to the robotic and science teams.”

A photo provided by NASA, shows members of NASA's Perseverance Mars rover team watch in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, on Thursday, Feb 18, 2021, as the first images arrive moments after the spacecraft successfully touched down on Mars. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via The New York Times)

One of the mission’s first orders of scientific business will be to study the rocks in the crater and to work out whether they are volcanic basalt or sedimentary rocks. If the rocks are sedimentary, the area might have been habitable long ago; if they are volcanic, it will allow geologists to calculate their age.

“I think we can say these rocks are between 3.8 and 3.6 or 3.7 billion years old,” Morgan of the Jet Propulsion Lab said. “So this is the time in Mars history when water was stable on the surface of Mars, and we think this area would have been a habitable environment.”

About every two years for decades now, a diverse armada of spacecraft from Earth have been heading for Mars when the planets are fortuitously aligned. NASA was joined this month by China and the United Arab Emirates, which both sent spacecraft to study the planet. It has become part of an international scientific effort to find out if life on Earth ever had any company in the solar system. Not all of the spacecraft have made it, and even NASA experienced a number of failed missions to Mars in the 1990s.

NASA’s twin Viking spacecraft, which landed in 1976, famously dug in the sand and performed experiments looking for living microbes but came up empty, perhaps because scientists didn’t understand Martian chemistry.

The Curiosity rover, which arrived in 2012, is still roaming a place called Gale Crater. It found geological evidence of past water, the essential ingredient for life as we think we know it. Perseverance, eight years in the making, is designed to search the places where water once was for so-called biosignatures — fossils or any other evidence of once-living organisms — according to Steltzner.

An image provided by NASA, with a magnified inset, shows a view from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the Perseverance rover’s descent into Jezero Crater. (NASA TV via The New York Times)

“When we do such investments,” he said, “we do them for humanity, and we do them as a gesture of our humanity.”

Perseverance will prowl around in the crater — an old lake bed — and then take a winding path through an old river delta, blasting rocks with a laser and taking pictures. It will scoop up and store samples of rocks and dirt, leaving them for a future mission that will retrieve the specimens and bring them back to labs on Earth.

That’s if all goes well.

So far it has.

The engineers said the rover would spend the weekend getting its software and hardware checked out and deploying various instruments, like a mast camera, that were locked down for the six-month trip through space.

They also intend to warm up Ingenuity, the experimental helicopter that could be first in controlled flight on another planet.

Pauline Hwang, a mission manager at the lab, said it could be 60 Martian days — or sols — before the helicopter flew.

After the checkouts are complete, the rover needs to find a good place for the helicopter to lift off from. “We call it a helipad location,” she said. “So we don’t know how many sols it’s going to take.

“There might be some really good what we call parking, well, helipad locations, nearby,” she said, “so it might not actually take us very long to drive there. But that’s still work to go to figure that out.”

Even on Mars, apparently, parking can be a problem.

 

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