LOS ANGELES • Nasa's Mars rover Perseverance, the most advanced astrobiology laboratory ever sent to another world, streaked through the Martian atmosphere and landed safely on Thursday inside a vast crater, the first stop on a search for traces of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.
Mission managers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (Nasa) Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles burst into cheers and applause, as radio beacons signalled that the rover had survived its perilous descent and arrived as planned on the floor of Jezero crater, the site of a long-vanished Martian lake bed.
The vehicle came to rest about 2km from towering cliffs at the foot of a remnant river delta etched into the crater billions of years ago, a prime spot for geo-biological study on Mars.
"Touchdown confirmed," Dr Swati Mohan, the lead guidance and operations specialist, announced. "Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars."
The robotic vehicle sailed through space for nearly seven months, covering 472 million km before piercing the Martian atmosphere at 19,000kmh.
Moments after touchdown, Perseverance beamed back its first black-and-white images from the Martian surface, one of them showing the rover's shadow cast on the desolate, rocky landing site.
The spacecraft's self-guided descent and landing during a complex series of manoeuvres that Nasa dubbed "the seven minutes of terror" stands as the most elaborate and challenging feat in the annals of robotic spaceflight.
Acting Nasa chief Steve Jurczyk called it an "amazing accomplishment". Dr Matt Wallace, deputy project manager for the rover, said the landing systems "performed flawlessly".
The landing represented the riskiest part of the two-year, US$2.7 billion (S$3.6 billion) endeavour, whose primary aim is to search for fossilised signs of microbes that may have flourished on Mars three billion years ago, when the planet was warmer, wetter and potentially hospitable to life.
Scientists hope to find biosignatures embedded in samples of ancient sediments that Perseverance is designed to extract from Martian rock for future analysis back on Earth - the first such specimens ever collected from another planet.
Two other Mars missions are planned to retrieve the samples in the next decade, in collaboration with the European Space Agency.
"Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility," US President Joe Biden tweeted.
Rush to the Red Planet
Countries that have sent missions to Mars
Perseverance rover, Nasa's fifth exploratory vehicle to Mars
Launched: July 30, 2020
Status: Landed on Feb 18, 2021
Mission duration: At least 687 days (one Martian year)
Purpose: To study Martian geology and search for signs of past life, collect samples and bring them back to Earth
Tianwen-1 orbiter, lander and rover, the first Chinese space mission to Mars
Launched: July 23, 2020
Status: Entered Mars orbit on Feb 10, due to land in May
Mission duration: 90 days
Purpose: To study soil, rocks and atmosphere on Mars, capture images, chart maps, look for water and past signs of life
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Al-Amal (Hope) orbiter, the first Arab space mission to Mars
Launched: July 19, 2020
Status: Entered Mars orbit on Feb 9
Mission duration: 687 days
Purpose: To study atmosphere, weather and climate on Mars
InSight lander, by Nasa
Launched: May 5, 2018
Status: Landed on Nov 26, 2018
Mission duration: Initially two years, extended until December 2022
Purpose: To study Mars' deep interior and its early geological evolution, as well as to place a seismometer on the planet's surface
Trace Gas orbiter, the European Space Agency and Russian space agency Roscosmos' combined mission to Mars.
Launched: March 14, 2016
Status: Entered Mars orbit on Oct 19, 2016
Mission duration: Seven years
Purpose: To take measurements for a detailed picture of Mars' atmosphere, examine past and present habitability of the planet
MAVEN orbiter, by Nasa
Launched: Nov 18, 2013
Status: Entered Mars orbit on Sept 22, 2014
Mission duration: Initially two years; its science phase was extended indefinitely
Purpose: To study atmosphere and climate on Mars
Mars Orbiter Mission orbiter, the first Indian space mission to the Red Planet
Launched: Nov 5, 2013
Status: Entered Mars orbit on Sept 24, 2014
Mission duration: Six months
Purpose: To explore the surface of Mars, its atmosphere and geology.
The mission was also a "technology demonstrator" project to develop the technologies for designing, planning, management and operations of an interplanetary mission.
Curiosity rover, by Nasa
Launched: Nov 26, 2011
Status: Landed in Mars' Gale crater on Aug 6, 2012
Mission duration: Initially two years; extended indefinitely
Purpose: To study Mars' climate, geology, and if its field site has ever been favourable for life
Nasa scientists have described Perseverance as the most ambitious of nearly 20 US missions to Mars dating back to the Mariner spacecraft's 1965 fly-by.
Packed with more instruments than the four Mars rovers preceding it, the rover is set to build on previous findings that liquid water once flowed on the Martian surface and that carbon and other minerals considered precursors to the evolution of life were present.
Perseverance's payload also includes demonstration projects that could help pave the way for human exploration of Mars, including a device to convert the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into pure oxygen.
Another experimental prototype carried by Perseverance is a miniature helicopter designed to test the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.
If successful, the 1.8kg helicopter could lead to low-altitude aerial surveillance of distant worlds.
The daredevil nature of the rover's descent to the Martian surface, at a site that Nasa described as both tantalising to scientists and especially hazardous for landing, was a momentous achievement.
The multi-stage spacecraft carrying the rover soared into the top of Martian atmosphere at nearly 16 times the speed of sound on Earth, angled to produce aerodynamic lift while jet thrusters adjusted its trajectory.
A jarring, supersonic parachute inflation slowed the descent, giving way to deployment of a rocket-powered "sky crane" vehicle that flew to a safe landing spot, lowered the rover on tethers, then flew off to crash a safe distance away.
Cameras designed to shoot the video of Perseverance as it plunged towards the surface are believed to have captured the first footage ever recorded of a spacecraft descending onto another planet. That video may be ready to be shown to the world next week.