Then the skycrane, a sort of hovercraft hanging from the top of the rover, would fire its eight pointed rockets downward, which would guide Perseverance to the right place, while continuing to slow it down. The skycrane gently lowered the rover, tied to it by bridle cords, onto solid ground, like a stork dropping a baby. The explosives would break the stork upon delivery.
Perseverance would ultimately be alone.
But it would take some time for this message to reach mission control, as signals cannot travel instantly between Earth and Mars. (“Everything that’s happening has happened before,” Chen had told me, “and there’s nothing you can do.”)
As Perseverance entered the atmosphere, Lockheed Martin’s conference room fell silent. No one spoke or picked up any of the Krispy Kreme donuts from the table. Every bit of information on the rover’s progress came around just 11 minutes after it actually happened, a fact that is never far from anyone’s mind.
“The heat shield was separated,” NASA TV said, and the room erupted into howls and applause for a few seconds – this being, of course, this team’s highlight – before falling silent again.
Minutes later, NASA confirmed that the windshield had separated. More applause erupted.
“Excellent!” someone yelled.
“I’m here hugging myself,” someone else said, actually squeezing the air.
Then these words from NASA: “Touchdown confirmed.”
Several people in Lockheed Martin’s room stood up, applauding. “We have landed on Mars!” one person said in amazement. “Holy cow,” replied their colleague.
“It’s fantastic,” says Scholz.
Once perseverance was Safely in the field, a team led by Jessica Samuels, Surface Mission Manager for the mission at JPL, took over from the EDL family, registering and commissioning the instruments and the rover. “At that point, we start operations around the clock,” she told me a few weeks before landing. Perseverance will undergo this commissioning and verification for about a month, and later this spring will test a little helicopter called Ingenuity, the first thing to do for a powered flight to another planet, before scientific operations actually begin in a few months.
Meanwhile, scientists designed the rover drive averaging 650 feet each Martian day, often reaching places of interest they identified in advance, and using the more detailed data collected in the field to inform future movements and data collection. Perseverance will take photos, track the weather, sweep the surface with ground-penetrating radar, collect and analyze rock and regolith samples to learn more about their composition, and hunt some for possible return to Earth.
Two instruments on the Perseverance robotic arm will help you search signs of biology. PIXL shines an x-ray beam onto rocks, illuminating them, the specifics of the glow depending on the chemistry of the rocks. Based on the resulting map of chemicals, textures, and structures, scientists can learn how rocks came to be how they are – including, perhaps, if life made them so. Another instrument, called SHERLOC, focuses on organic compounds and minerals. It is both a microscope that takes pictures and a spectrometer that reveals the composition of the surface material. Combine these two sets of information and “you end up producing a chemical map of what you’re looking at,” says Luther Beegle, principal investigator at SHERLOC. Minerals can reveal old-time conditions in a given location – like the salinity of the water gone – and whether they were habitable. And organic could to be (although not necessarily) signs of the past life, especially if they appear in strange formations, like tufts. They talk about the past hospitality of the planet, whether or not organizations have taken advantage of it.