Three spacecraft arrived at Earth’s cosmic neighbor in the first half of this month—all reaching Mars in the space of just over a week. On Thursday, NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on the surface, to cheers and celebration back at home in California. The ground control crew had waited nearly seven months for Perseverance to get into range, and then another seven silent and terrifying minutes during its descent through the Mars atmosphere. When radio silence was broken, Perseverance sent back two grainy photos of the planet’s surface. NASA called the touchdown “flawless.”
Perseverance is the biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA. It became the ninth spacecraft to successfully land on Mars. Every one of those so far has come from the United States.
But now two more craft from other nations are orbiting the Red Planet. One from the United Arab Emirates and another from China swung into orbit on successive days last week. Hope, the UAE orbiter, sent back its first photo of Mars on Sunday.
All three missions lifted off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars. (See It Was the Summer of Mars.) All journeyed some 300 million miles over nearly seven months.
“Now the amazing science starts,” says a jubilant Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's science mission chief.
The car-sized, plutonium-powered Perseverance rover arrived at Jezero Crater, hitting NASA’s smallest and trickiest target yet: a five-by-four-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs, and rocks. Scientists believe that if life of any kind ever flourished on Mars, it would have happened where water flowed on the planet.
Over the next two years, Percy, as it is nicknamed, will use its seven-foot arm to drill and collect rock samples. Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside to be retrieved eventually by another rover. Then they’ll be brought to Earth by another rocket ship. Scientists will examine those samples for possible signs of bygone microscopic life. The goal is to get them back to Earth as early as 2031.
China’s spacecraft includes a smaller rover that will also seek 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.
(Live-streaming images from NASA showing Perseverance’s view on Mars are shown in London on February 18, 2021. Much of the world watched as the rover made its descent through the Red Planet’s atmosphere and safely touched down. AP/Alastair Grant)