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A year after landing on Mars, Perseverance rover sets sights on intriguing new target


By Ashley Strickland, CNN

A year ago, two robots landed on Mars and forever changed the way we explore the red planet.

The joy and excitement of the successful landing for the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter, taking place during a time of hardship for so many, echoed around the globe.

“One year ago, Perseverance touched down at Jezero Crater and began its journey on Mars. Since then, this innovative rover has inspired humanity and accomplished a series of firsts, from transmitting the first audio recording of sounds from Mars, to capturing the Ingenuity helicopter’s history making first powered, controlled flight on another planet, to producing oxygen on Mars for the first time ever with the MOXIE experiment,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement.

“As we prepare to transport the first-ever sample of Martian rock to Earth, it’s clear that NASA missions continue to push the limits in a new era of planetary science and discovery,” Nelson said.

For Vandi Verma, chief engineer of robotic operations for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, landing day was just the beginning.

Verma specializes in remotely driving rovers on Mars from here on Earth and has expertly maneuvered the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers in the past, in addition to writing flight software for them. As soon as Perseverance’s wheels touched down, Verma was ready to prepare the rover for its new home on another planet and help the helicopter begin its independent journey.

“It feels like you’ve got this massive upgrade, and it’s like driving a new car and you just feel the smoothness of it,” Verma said of driving the rover. “Every day on Mars, something is unusual or unexpected. Yet things have gone amazingly well, just beyond our expectations.”

The hardest selfie ever

Perseverance’s journey began by sharing the very first video of a mission landing on Mars and some of the first sounds humans have heard of the red planet, as well as beautiful images from Perseverance’s suite of cameras. Those same cameras helped capture the inaugural flight of Ingenuity as it lifted up through the Martian atmosphere.

Before Ingenuity was let loose, the JPL team knew they wanted to capture a selfie of the two robots. Their best opportunity was right before Perseverance drove off to a lookout point like a proud parent, ready to let its video camera roll on the “first Wright brothers moment” on another planet.

But taking the selfie was such a complicated endeavor that it almost didn’t happen, Verma said. Although Perseverance has a long robotic arm measuring 7 feet (2.1 meters), the rover’s bit carousel — which stores the historic samples it’s collecting — protrudes from the front of the rover, making it hard to get the right angle. The rover team had to work through multiple issues to figure out how Perseverance would arrange its massive arm without colliding with its own body.

In the end, the team stitched together multiple images to capture everyone’s favorite explorers in an iconic selfie.

Since landing, Perseverance has clocked 2.45 miles (3,944 meters) and collected six rock samples from intriguing Martian rocks. The rover has set and broken single-day driving distance records several times, going for a drive of 1,050 feet (320 meters) on Monday, with more expected in the future.

The Ingenuity helicopter, designed as an experiment meant for only five flights, has performed 19 aerial excursions on the red planet since April. Over the summer, Ingenuity was so successful that it graduated from an experiment to become Perseverance’s scout, flying over varied terrain and spotting points of interest for the rover to investigate.

The historic chopper mission has flown 2.4 miles (3,885 meters) for a total duration of 34 minutes.

These achievements haven’t come without challenges, including Perseverance encountering some rocks that didn’t want to give up samples and Ingenuity’s software glitches. But any issues have helped to bond the mission team more closely as they worked on solutions to keep the robots healthy, Verma said.

Setting off for the delta

Perseverance and Ingenuity have spent the majority of the past year exploring the floor of Jezero Crater, once home to a Martian lake more than 3 billion years ago. Now, it’s time for the robotic explorers to move on to their main reason for being on Mars: studying the remains of an ancient river delta that once fed into the lake.

“When we chose the landing site, it was because of the delta; that’s the reason we’re here,” said Briony Horgan, associate professor of planetary science at Purdue University and a scientist on the Perseverance mission. “We’ll spend most of the next year on the delta, exploring this ancient lake and river environment and looking for signs of ancient life like organic material and signs of microbes.”

Sandwiched between layers of sediment preserved in the delta rocks may be evidence of microfossils or other signs of life, if it existed on the red planet.

The ambitious Mars Sample Return mission, a multistep collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, will rely on innovations, like launching from the Martian surface for the first time, to retrieve the rock samples collected and cached by Perseverance and return them to the Earth in the 2030s.

Scientists studying those samples could answer the big question: Was there ever life on Mars?

“Kids generally want to learn something because it’s going to have an impact on the world,” Verma said. “When the Martian samples come back in the 2030s, very likely the scientists to study these will be the students who are in school right now.”

Perseverance and Ingenuity are just the first step in exploring Mars in new ways while paving the way for future missions that could explore the possibility of life on other planets in our solar system.

“It’s an incredibly ambitious mission, with goals that are leaps and bounds beyond any previous Mars rover and really any previous space mission had been supposed to do: how far and fast we’re supposed to drive, how many samples we’re supposed to drill,” Horgan said.

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