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NASA’s Perseverance rover landing on Mars: how did it go?

NASA have landed a spacecraft on the surface of Mars for the fifth time. Scientists hope the mission will provide insight into the red planet's history.

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NASA’s Perseverance rover landing on Mars: how did it go?
BILL INGALLS/NASA via REUTERS

On Thursday afternoon NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully touched down on the surface of Mars, landing in a deep crater called Jezero near the planet’s equator.

The NASA team at the agency’s California control centre were awaiting confirmation that the spacecraft had survived a perilous seven-minute descent, during which it dropped from speeds of around 12,500 miles per hour to a standstill.

Landing on the red planet was the most nerve-wracking phase of an exciting new mission as they search for evidence of past life on Mars. Steve Jurczyk, NASA's acting administrator, described it as “an amazing day”.

He added: "What an amazing team, the work through all the adversity and all the challenges that go with landing a rover on Mars, plus the challenges of COVID ... just an amazing accomplishment.”

Perseverance touches down on Mars

The team watching on in California were joined by millions around the world as the agency broadcast the momentous occasion in full. The landing was the culmination of over a decade of painstaking planning and only around 50% of previous attempts to land on Mars have succeeded.

There is a considerable time delay in signal returning to the earth, so it was not until minutes after the craft had landed that the crew found out that it had reached the surface in one piece. But by 15:55 (ET) Perseverance’s seven-month journey from the Florida coast was confirmed as a success.

The next task for the team will be to check that the spacecraft’s suite of equipment is still in working order after a very testing trip. The voyage brings the first microphone and first aircraft to reach the red planet, and packs more cameras than ever before.

Also on board are two devices known as SHERLOC and WATSON, which will play a central role in the mission’s aim of investigating the possibility of past life on the planet. The six-wheeled rover is only the size of a typical car and will be in use on the planet for a minimum of one Martian year, or 687 Earth days.

Why are NASA landing on Mars?

This marks the first step in a new and exciting phase of Mars exploration, with a much more in-depth study than previous expeditions have managed. NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen told reporters earlier this week that the Perseverance mission represents “the advent of an entirely new phase” of the agency’s effort.

This time around scientists hope to use the rover’s various capabilities to gain greater insight into the red planets astrobiology, studying its biological make-up. The search for signs of ancient life is a top priority and the landing spot was carefully chosen.

The rover now sits just in front of what scientists suspect is the remains of a vast delta, a geographical feature which suggests the presence of water in the past. Perseverance will take samples from the base of the delta and has the tools on board to conduct microscopic analysis of the findings.

Mike Watkins, the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the home of the agency's Mars missions, is optimistic about the potential discoveries that this latest mission could uncover:

"It is just fantastic to be able to do that and to learn from each rover, learn from the science and the engineering and to make the next one better. Every time we do one of these missions, we make fabulous discoveries and each one is more exciting than the last."