NASA started a new chapter in its space exploration history book with the safe landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars on Feb. 18. This stunning image shows the rover as it was lowered to the surface using what's called a "sky crane" maneuver.
This could very well become an iconic image when it comes to humanity's efforts to investigate our solar system.
Perseverance is on a mission to seek out signs of ancient microbial life, collect samples and deploy a tiny helicopter named Ingenuity.
NASA's Perseverance rover sent back its first look at the Mars surface on Feb. 18. with a low-resolution shot from an engineering camera. This view highlighted the dusty and rocky surface of the red planet within the Jezero Crater, a region that has a fascinating history of water in the deep past.
One of the first images Perseverance sent back from Mars was this look at one of its six wheels. Geologists were excited about the pitted-looking rocks nearby and wondered if they might be volcanic or sedimentary.
Since landing on Feb. 18, the Perseverance rover has had a chance to look around and scope out the surrounding landscape, which shows off some pretty typical Mars sights of dust, dirt and rocks.
Perseverance rover spent some time snapping pictures of its body parts after landing. This image shows the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, an instrument that will take weather measurements and study dust particles.
An upward-facing camera captured this view of the deployed parachute that helped ease Perseverance's arrival on Mars. The parachute contained a hidden message: "Dare mighty things."
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped an image of Mars showing Perseverance and all the assorted bits used and discarded during the landing process. The orbiting spacecraft gives us a different perspective on the landing site in Jezero Crater. Annotations show the locations of the parachute, descent stage, rover and heat shield.
Thanks to some extra cameras NASA installed for the Perseverance mission, space fans got unprecedented views of the harrowing landing process. This is the protective heat shield jettisoned by Perseverance just minutes before landing.
The highlighted portion of this image shows where the mission's descent stage landed safely away from the Perseverance rover on Feb. 18. After escorting the rover to the surface, the descent stage moved away and impacted the surface. The rover fortuitously caught sight of the smoke plume in the distance.
This image shows a small section of the rover's first high-definition panorama, which NASA stitched together from 142 separate images. The full panorama shows a sweeping view of the landscape and the distant walls of Jezero Crater.
The Perseverance rover snapped a look at its deck and stowed arm on Feb. 20, 2021. The vehicle was looking pretty clean just a couple days after its arrival on dusty Mars.
NASA sent its Perseverance rover to collect samples, search for signs of past microbial life and even unleash an experimental helicopter. This illustration will have to tide us over until we get a proper selfie from Mars.
Perseverance launched on July 30, 2020, kicking off a months-long journey through space. Landing was a tense process, but Perseverance joined Curiosity as NASA's only functioning rovers on Mars.
NASA's latest red planet rover was originally known as the Mars 2020 rover until a naming contest gave it the new moniker Perseverance. NASA announced the name in March 2020. It was chosen from over 28,000 entries from students across the US.
NASA's Perseverance rover hitched a ride into space on July 30, 2020, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The rover took months to reach Mars before touching down on the red planet in February 2021.
The Perseverance rover is the size of a small car. Its "head" holds cameras on top of a neck-like mast. These act as the rover's eyes, helping it record the Martian surface, look ahead for hazards and snap gorgeous landscape views. This design gives the rover "a human-scale view," according to NASA.
Mars is challenging for robotic explorers. Humanity has had both triumphs and heartbreaks when it comes to investigating the red planet.
NASA's Perseverance rover isn't the only vehicle with big Mars dreams. The European Space Agency plans to launch its ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover in 2022. China's space agency also launched its own Tianwen-1 rover mission in July 2020.
NASA's Perseverance rover touched down in a previously unexplored part of Mars called Jezero Crater. The space agency announced the winning landing site in late 2018.
This Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image shows the Jezero Crater delta region. "The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology," said NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen.
Put your wheels in the air like you just don't care. NASA's rover team put the Perseverance rover through a series of tests during its final preparations in April 2020. These tests included balancing the rover, a concept similar to balancing a car's wheels. NASA added weight to the rover chassis to achieve this.
Mars is a tough landscape. It's sandy and rocky and can be punishing on a rover's wheels, as the Curiosity rover knows. Perseverance's six aluminum wheels are made with cleats that give them traction in tricky surface conditions. Each wheel is 20.7 inches (52.5 centimeters) in diameter.
One of the wildest aspects of the Perseverance mission is that it includes a helicopter. The small helicopter, named Ingenuity, is riding on the rover's belly until NASA finds a suitable spot to release it for a test flight.
This image shows the flight model of the helicopter in early 2019. NASA considers Ingenuity a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. If it works, it will be a stunning achievement in flight on another planet.
In April 2020, NASA tucked the Mars Ingenuity helicopter into the belly of the Perseverance rover. The Mars-copter was protected by a shell during the descent to the planet's surface in February 2021. NASA intends to deploy the helicopter within a few months.
NASA invited Earth's citizens to ride along with the Perseverance rover to Mars. Nearly 11 million people signed up and their names are now etched on silicon chips that are installed on an aluminum plate on the rover.
The plate also sports an illustration of the Earth, the sun and Mars. There's a special message hidden here, too. Morse code hidden in the sun's rays spells out the phrase "explore as one."
The Perseverance rover won't ever forget its own name. It's wearing a titanium nameplate that's not just decorative. "The plate serves as rock and debris shield to protect a flexible cable that carries power and data from computers in the rover's body to actuators in the arm, as well as to the instruments and the drill in the turret," NASA said.
NASA's Perseverance rover will be doing a lot of sampling of Mars. In May 2020, engineers installed a set of sample tubes into the rover's belly. "Each tube is sheathed in a gold-colored cylindrical enclosure to protect it from contamination," NASA said.
Perseverance will be in charge of placing samples in the tubes, but it will be up to a future Mars mission to pick them up. NASA hopes to collect at least a dozen samples and eventually retrieve them for study on Earth.
Perseverance will be looking for signs of past microbial life in the Jezero Crater on Mars. This photo shows a collection of stromatolites, rounded accumulations of fossilized microbes and sediment, found right here on Earth in Nevada.
"Scientists hope to find something similar in the dry lakebed Perseverance will be exploring on Mars," said NASA.
It takes a big rocket to get off this rock. This United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster escorted NASA's Perseverance rover into space from Florida in July 2020. This look at the Atlas V comes from late May 2020 at Cape Canaveral.
NASA shared this look at the rocket-powered rover descent stage in 2018. This crucial component of the landing system helped to slow the rover's arrival and then lowered the vehicle to the surface using a "sky crane" maneuver.
"Nylon cords spool out to lower the rover 25 feet (7.6 meters) below the descent stage; When the spacecraft senses touchdown at Jezero Crater, the connecting cords are severed and the descent stage flies off," NASA said in describing the landing process.
This is how you pack up a rover for shipping to Mars. NASA shared a look at the Perseverance rover's belly with the descent stage above it and the helicopter in place in May 2020. The rover launched in July 2020.
It takes a lot of specialized equipment to safely land a rover on Mars. The bowl-shaped back shell kept the Perseverance rover protected as it entered the Martian atmosphere.
NASA wanted its Perseverance rover to have a pleasant and gentle arrival on Mars in February 2021. To do that, it needed a big parachute. This still image came from a September 2018 test that mimicked the conditions of Mars.
The successful test was one in a series and gave NASA confidence in the parachute system. "It was the fastest inflation in history of a parachute this size and created a peak load of almost 70,000 pounds of force," NASA said.