The world has gotten its first close-up look at a Mars landing, as NASA released a stunning picture of its newest rover being lowered onto the dusty red surface.
The photo was released on Friday less than 24 hours after the Perseverance rover successfully touched down near an ancient river delta, where it will search for signs of ancient life and set aside the most promising rock samples for return to Earth in a decade.
The image was taken at the very end of the so-called “seven-minutes-of-terror” descent sequence, as the rover travelled at 12,000 miles per hour, to a gentle touchdown on the floor of a vast basin called the Jezero Crater.
NASA equipped the spacecraft with a record 25 cameras and two microphones, many of which were turned on during Thursday’s descent.
The rover is shown in extraordinary detail just 2 metres (6 1/2 feet) off the ground, being lowered by cables attached to an overhead sky crane, the red dust kicked up by rocket engines.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, promises more photos in the next few days and possibly also an audio recording of the descent.
“This is something that we’ve never seen before,” flight system engineer Aaron Stehura noted at a news conference.
“It was stunning, and the team was awestruck. There’s just a feeling of victory that we were able to capture these and share it.”
Chief engineer Adam Steltzner called the picture “iconic,” putting it right up there with photos of Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin on the moon, Saturn as seen by Voyager 1, and the Hubble Space Telescope’s “pillars of creation” shot.
A number of thumbnail images have been beamed down so far, too many to count, said Pauline Hwang, strategic mission manager for surface operations. “The team went wild” at seeing these first pictures, she said.
The picture is so clear and detailed that deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan at first thought she was looking at a photo from an animation. “Then I did a double take and said: `That’s the actual rover!’”
The vehicle is healthy, according to officials, after landing on a flat, safe surface in Jezero Crater with just 1 degree of tilt and relatively small rocks nearby.
For now, the systems still are being checked. It will be at least a week before the rover starts driving.
The river delta – awash 3 billion to 4 billion years ago – is just over 2 kilometres (1 mile) away. Scientists consider it the most likely place to find rocks with evidence of past microscopic life.
Samples of rock drilled from the Martian soil are to be stored on the surface for eventual retrieval and delivery to Earth by two future robotic missions to the Red Planet, as early as 2031.
Another photo of Perseverance’s front right wheel, near rocks full of holes, already has scientists salivating.
They’re eager to learn whether these rocks are volcanic or sedimentary.
Fifth time’s the charm
It’s the ninth time that NASA has successfully landed on Mars and the fifth rover.
As it did with 2012’s Curiosity rover – still roaming 3,750 kilometres (2,300 miles) away – NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photographed Perseverance descending beneath its massive parachute.
In each case, the spacecraft and chute resembled specks.
Curiosity’s cameras caught a stop-motion movie of the last two minutes its descent, but the images were small and fuzzy.
NASA loaded up the heftier Perseverance and its descent stage with more and better cameras, and made sure they were turned on for the entire seven-minute plunge through the Martian atmosphere.
China will attempt to land its own much smaller rover in late spring. It’s been orbiting Mars for 1 1/2 weeks.
The United Arab Emirates also put a spacecraft into Martian orbit last week.