Today at 3:55pm EST,  NASA rover Perseverance landed safely on Mars after a 300-million-mile flight that began with launch from Cape Canaveral, FL on July 30, 2020. This afternoon’s high-speed entry into the Martian atmosphere, descent first by parachute and then landing rockets, and finally being lowered gently to the Martian surface by cables should be captured by video for the first time. The lander arrived precisely on target in four-mile-wide Jezero Crater, which was filled with water billions of years ago.  

Perseverance is a one-ton, nuclear-powered rover about the size of an SUV. The mission’s primary goal is to seek signs of ancient life on the red planet. Perseverance is the first of five planned NASA rovers to search for traces of Martian life that existed billions of years ago when Mars was warmer and wetter than the dusty planet that exists today. 

Perseverance and Ingenuity Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To help scientists search for clues that Mars might have been a living planet, Perseverance will collect rock samples that a future mission will return to Earth for detailed scrutiny. The answer to whether life ever existed on Mars could be locked inside those samples. If scientists get really lucky, the rover could find evidence of life as it aims its suite of instruments at Jezero’s formerly watery terrain.

Once it’s systems are activated and checked, Perseverance will begin to explore the surroundings. It will transmit images and video, and collect soil samples. That is “old hat” for Mars probes. Perseverance expands the envelope in two exciting ways. The lander will record sound and deploy a self-controlled helicopter.

The recordings will be the first made on a heavenly body other than Earth. Moon landings had no audio because sound cannot propagate in a vacuum. The Martian atmosphere, while thin, is sufficient to allow sound waves to travel and be heard.

Even more fun is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter that will deploy from the belly of the lander. Ingenuity weighs only about 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) and is powered by four carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm. Ingenuity has a video camera but no scientific instruments. This mission will put it through a series of flight tests, the first attempts at powered flight on another planet.

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

I will be keeping tabs on the mission over the coming days and weeks and am pretty pumped to see how it turns out.  How about you?