NASA”s Mars landing team was on “cloud nine” Friday after getting the first close-up pictures of a rover descending to the dusty red surface.
The best photo was released less than 24 hours after the Perseverance rover successfully touched down near an ancient river delta.
Perseverance can be seen in stunning detail just 6 1/2 feet (2 meters) off the ground, being lowered wheels first by cables attached to an overhead sky crane, the red dust kicked up by rocket engines.
Chief engineer Adam Steltzner called the picture “iconic,” putting it right up there with photos of Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin on the moon, Saturn as seen by Voyager 1, and the Hubble Space Telescope’s “pillars of creation” shot.
NASA equipped the spacecraft with a record 25 cameras and two mikes, many of which were turned on during Thursday’s descent.
Another picture shows the first high-resolution, colour image from the underside of the rover after its landing.
NASA says a key objective for Perseverance’s mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover’s work will include examining the planet’s geology and climate, collecting Martian rock and dust in the process.
The descent stage holding NASA’s Perseverance rover can be seen in another photo falling through the Martian atmosphere, its parachute trailing behind.
The image was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. HiRISE was approximately 700 kilometres from Perseverance and travelling at about 3 kilometres per second at the time, NASA says.
The extreme distance and high speeds of the two spacecraft were challenging conditions that required precise timing and for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to both pitch upward and roll hard to the left so that Perseverance was viewable by HiRISE at just the right moment.
The ancient river delta, which is the target of the Perseverance mission, can be seen entering Jezero Crater from the left.
The mission will also pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.
The American space agency promises more photos in the next few days and possibly also an audio recording of the descent.
A number of thumbnail images have been beamed down so far, too many to count, according to officials.
The spacecraft is healthy, according to officials, after landing on a flat, safe surface with just 1 degree of tilt and relatively small rocks nearby.
For now, the systems are being checked. It will be at least a week before the rover starts driving.