They did it.
NASA's Perseverance rover successfully touched down on the surface of Mars after a seven-month journey from Earth — starting its mission to find signs of ancient Martian life. This followed a heart-stopping "seven minutes of terror" descent into the thin atmosphere, where no one knew whether the rover had made it or not. But once NASA received the signal of wheel touchdown, the agency had landed the most advanced robotic rover to navigate the surface of the Red Planet.
The Perseverance lander touched down on Mars at roughly 3:55 PM EST on Thursday, Feb. 18, and NASA streamed the event live on the agency's YouTube channel (featured below).
First helicopter on Mars to fly in next 30 days
"There are a series of challenges between now and the first flight of the first-ever helicopter on Mars," said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity helicopter project manager. "Surviving that first cold frigid night on Mars will be a major milestone. We'll execute a series of checkouts, and then we'll perform that very first flight."
"And if the first flight is successful, we have up to four more flights in the 30 Martian days that we had set aside for our flight experiments," said Aung. Ingenuity will attempt its flight in the next 30 days.
Perseverance will return first sample of Mars' surface to Earth
"It's the biggest and best rover we've ever sent to Mars," said Mike Watkins — Director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who was also mission commander for Curiosity's landing on the Red Planet.
"But it's also the first-ever Mars sample return," added Watkins. "For places that are far away like Mars, or even farther away — like Europa — right now robots are the only way we can make these scientific discoveries and really understand these early habitable environments."
"We're not really ready to go there with astronauts yet, but the robots are," said Watkins. "Every time we do one of these missions, we make more fantastic discoveries."
Soon, Perseverance will launch the first flying vehicle on Mars — a helicopter.
Upcoming weeks for Mars Perseverance rover
The commanding team will work overnight to perform the initial checkouts of Perseverance's science instruments.
"We will be working around the clock to ensure the health of this rover. The rover wakes up at the same time every day, but on Earth, that's 40 minutes later — so our team will be shifting its work schedule by 40 minutes every time" they come in, said another NASA official from within mission control, during the agency live stream.
NASA's Perseverance begins historic mission on Mars
The Perseverance vehicle has already located where it landed on the Red Planet. "NASA works!" exclaimed an official in mission control.
Steve Jurczyk, the acting NASA administrator, described the historic landing, saying: "It's amazing to have Perseverance join Curiosity on Mars."
"Landing a rover on Mars plus the challenges of COVID — it's just an amazing accomplishment," said Jurczyk. This mission "will allow us to land larger and more ambitious robots on the surface of Mars."
"We're going to eventually figure out how to extract water from under the Martian soil — which can be recycled into rocket fuel," said Jurczyk.
Perseverance successfully touched down on Mars
Perseverance fired its landing engines shortly before landing on Mars to slow its approach to the planet, decelerating from 30 meters per second during the final descent of 300 meters.
Perseverance deploys parachute
Perseverance just deployed its parachute during descent to the surface of Mars. It's roughly 11 km from the surface of Mars and is currently uploading telemetry to give us our first look at the surface.
The heat shield was detached and data is incoming.
Perseverance performing bank reversals to control descent
Perseverance experienced roughly 10 times the gravity of Earth (10 G's) as it passed through maximum deceleration during entry into Mars' atmosphere.
The rover is performing bank reversals to modify its approach to land on the surface. It's moving at roughly 0.6 miles per second (1 km/sec).
NASA's Perseverance rover has begun atmospheric entry on Mars
NASA's Perseverance rover has entered Mars' atmosphere, moving at roughly 3.3 miles per second (5.3 km/s) at roughly 75 miles (120 km) from the surface of Mars.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to relay Perseverance signal
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) — from the European Space Agency — will relay the "ones and zeroes" heartbeat tones of Perseverance, enabling NASA scientists to keep in touch with the rover as it makes its tension-filled descent.
Mars Perseverance separates from cruise stage, atmospheric entry imminent
The Perseverance rover has separated from the cruise stage, and it has achieved an optimal orientation for entry into Mars' atmosphere. These are the moments that try people's souls.
As of writing, the rover will enter the atmosphere in six minutes. NASA will receive a signal for roughly five minutes after it enters the atmosphere, after which a few trying minutes will pass during atmospheric radio black out.
Mission control ups the tension as Mars rover approaches
"Very soon as we approach cruise-stage separation, the transmitter on this rover we've been using all the way to get to Mars is going to be turned off," said a NASA official during the live stream of Perseverance's landing attempt.
"Once the cruise stage is gone, there's another radio that will continue transmitting a tone so that — like a flashlight — it will allow us to at least see that the vehicle is still 'on,'" he added. "But soon after that, it won't be long before we'll be able to hear more 'ones and zeroes' coming from the spacecraft."
There are one thousand things that have to go right, he added. "We've loaded the dice to make this thing succeed. But if we do fail, I can tell you we'll have the data — we'll know why, we'll figure it out."
NASA's Perseverance rover is landing on Mars
This landing attempt comes on the heels of a seven-month journey from Earth to Mars — across 125 million miles (202 million kilometers). Once it's landed, the rover will broadcast data in high-definition 4K, collect noteworthy rock samples for a crucial sample-return launch, and fire the first interplanetary helicopter into the Red Planet's skies.
The science mission of the rover will also involve laser-targeting, taking high-resolution photographs, and exploring the ancient delta inside the Jezero Crater.
Perseverance could become crowning achievement of 50 years' study of Mars
This mission is the result of a decade of tireless work, and NASA officials were ecstatic during a press conference held on Wednesday, Feb. 17. As the most advanced rover to ever touchdown on Mars, Perseverance is expected to become a crowning achievement to 50 years of remote and robotic investigations of Mars — from scanning for water signs, to the first landings, to the initial rover rollouts like Pathfinder in the 1990s, and later in the 2000s.
Rovers Spirit and Opportunity were the first long-term missions on Mars — which made touchdowns in 2004 and continued functioning until roughly 2010 and 2018.
Earlier Mars rovers confirmed ancient water lake
About these earlier missions, NASA's Director of Planetary Science Lori Glaze said the mission control team was "following the water, trying to understand the history of water on Mars and understanding if there were ever a time when there was enough liquid water present on the surface of Mars to support life."
"This was followed, of course, by Curiosity — where we really took the next step to understand the habitable environments on Mars," added Glaze. "We were able to confirm the presence of a lake of liquid water on the surface of Mars that was sustained over a period of time, and also identify the complex organic molecules that would be the building blocks of life."
Perseverance using AI to guide itself into a soft touchdown
All of the knowledge amassed from earlier ventures to space helped prepare NASA for the Perseverance rover, said Glaze, "which is going to take that next step — to really, actually look for those signs of life."
Notably, Perseverance will use artificial intelligence to scan and map the safest landing site in the minutes before touchdown. Once the AI has processed the data, the rover will make final preparations to ensure a soft connection with the surface of Mars. Computer-assisted landing technology is necessary because, unlike low-Earth orbit missions, it takes radio signals far too long for precise control — since any signal can only travel at the speed of light.
The landing on Mars will be the first planetary challenge for NASA's Perseverance rover — also called "Percy" — as it careens into the Red Planet's atmosphere. In the past, landing sites were typically centered within wide, open plains. But Percy's Jezero Crater landing site is more fascinating — with sand dunes, rock fields, and craters, there's no shortage of adventures for the rover, upon touchdown.
This was a breaking story and was regularly updated as new information became available.
Correction: This article has been updated. The text previously stated the Ingenuity helicopter would fly on Friday, Feb. 19. This has been updated to reflect that the first flight will happen sometime 30 days after Perseverance's landing. IE regrets this error.