NASA successfully landed another rover on Mars Thursday. The Perseverance rover touched down about 4pm Eastern after a typically nail-biting descent. Ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena cheered and exchanged fist bumps and high-fives in triumph—and relief—on receiving confirmation that the six-wheeled Perseverance had touched down on the red planet, long a deathtrap for incoming spacecraft. It took a tension-filled 11 1/2 minutes for the signal to reach Earth, per the AP. “Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life,” flight controller Swati Mohan announced to back-slapping colleagues.
Percy, as it is nicknamed, will now proceed with its mission—to drill down with its 7-foot arm and collect rock samples that might hold signs of bygone microscopic life. The plan called for three to four dozen chalk-size samples to be sealed in tubes and set aside on Mars to be retrieved by a fetch rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship, with the goal of getting them back to Earth as early as 2031. The landing of the rover, which is about the size of a car and powered by plutonium, is the third visit to Mars in just over a week. Two spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China swung into orbit around the planet on successive days last week. China’s spacecraft includes a smaller rover that also will be seeking evidence of life—if it makes it safely down from orbit in May or June. (More Mars stories.)