While we collectively held our breaths during the "seven minutes of terror" of the entry, descent, and landing, the star rover of NASA's Mars 2020 mission completed its nearly seven-month journey to its new home: the enigmatic Jezero Crater.
"Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life," flight controller Swati Mohan announced during those nail-biting last moments at mission control.
Every step of the way, the landing procedure occurred without a hitch, with atmospheric entry, slowdown, and touchdown taking place exactly as expected. (You can read our detailed live blog of those moments directly below.)
The entry capsule carrying Perseverance - with Ingenuity Mars Helicopter strapped to its belly - careened into the Martian atmosphere at 19,000 km/h (12,000 mph).
To slow down, the craft used thrusters and unfurled the largest supersonic parachute NASA has ever sent to another planet - a crucial component for safely slowing down the entry capsule of the car-sized Perseverance rover. At 3:55 pm EST, mission control confirmed that Perseverance is alive on the surface of Mars.
While scientists, engineers and space enthusiasts the world over celebrate the historical moment, this is just the very beginning of Perseverance's adventure on the red planet.
The Mars 2020 mission has four major science objectives, geared towards supporting NASA's Mars exploration program at large.
The main goal is to identify environments on the red planet that might have once supported microbial life.
The Jezero Crater was chosen as the landing site because it is one of the most promising places to look for signs of such ancient life, although it's also a hazardous place to land, with lots of rocks, sand dunes, and smaller craters in and around the basin.
Still, it's worth the risk. The region contains remnants of an ancient river delta, and the Jezero Crater itself was once filled to the brim with a lake, which means it might have preserved ancient fossils.
The rover - the most sophisticated yet that NASA has sent to Mars - has been kitted out with a vast array of tools and instruments, including a drill that will collect core samples of Martian rock and soil, to be stored for pickup by a future mission.
The rover will also be testing atmospheric oxygen levels to provide crucial information for future human exploration.
Within seconds of landing, Perseverance took several photos from dust-proofed cameras on its front and back. Low-resolution images have already been made available, and higher resolution images will be coming later this week.
We can't wait to see what Perseverance will discover.
This event marks a major stage in NASA's Mars 2020 mission, as engineers based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California will attempt to land the fifth and most ambitious Mars rover the space agency has ever sent to the red planet.
The nail-biting "seven minutes of terror" - during which the rover nestled in its entry capsule will enter the Martian atmosphere, descend, and land in Jezero Crater - will begin around 3:48 pm EST, and we are hoping to celebrate a successful touchdown at around 3:55 pm EST!
In the live blog below, we'll be bringing you all the latest updates and fun science facts as we get closer to Perseverance's landing. You can also tune into the NASA livestream right here:
LIVE BLOG (all timestamps EST/refresh the page to see the latest updates)
2:45 pm: Another space mission, another live blog! As usual, we are so excited to be experiencing this rover landing here with you all. As of now, we're entering the last hour before the action, and we are sure that over at NASA there are hundreds of nervous space engineers who barely slept a wink last night.
2:45 pm: While we wait, here are three fast facts about Perseverance: while largely based on its predecessor Curiosity, the new rover is more autonomous than any other craft previously landed on Mars; it's carrying a helicopter (!) for a test of the first powered flights on Mars; nestled amongst its wheels is a commemorative plaque honouring medical workers from around the world, who have worked tirelessly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A touching tribute by @NASA to all the health workers fighting #COVID19 around the World. This plaque, affixed to the Perseverance rover, is a testament of humanity's strength and indeed our perseverance in the Universe. 🌎🌍🌏#CountdownToMars #Mars2020 #NASA #Perseverance #Mars pic.twitter.com/eYzX1UvUi7— Leon Lesley Dobie (@leon_dobie) July 30, 2020
2:48 pm: By the way, if you're keen on multi-screening this whole thing, the official Twitter hashtag is #CountdownToMars.
2:51 pm: What would be the most exciting scientific discovery of Perseverance? Finding traces of ancient life on Mars, according to Katie Stack Morgan, the mission's deputy project scientist.
That's why Perseverance is landing in Jezero Crater - this captivating landscape contains an ancient Martian river delta. You can read here in this piece by Evan Gough on why it's a perfect place for preserving fossils:
Jezero Crater was chosen for a few reasons. It's an ancient area, the site of a lake about 3.5 billion years ago. It contains landforms that old, including the river delta. It also contains the so-called "bathtub ring" of carbonates.
3:06 pm: Less than an hour to go now! We're starting to feel the jitters. On the NASA stream right now, there's a discussion of another incredible thing Perseverance has been tasked with - gathering samples from the surface of Mars for a later mission to retrieve! Lori Glaze, Director of NASA's Science Mission Directorate's Planetary Science Division, is explaining that the sample tubes the rover is carrying had to be basically the cleanest things ever - not a single shred of Earthling DNA can be allowed in there, in order to not contaminate the materials.
By the way, ESA will be helping NASA to capture the samples on the return mission. The mission status is currently 'proposed', so it will be a while yet before we actually have some fresh Mars rocks.
3:13 pm: Ooooh, you guys. The 'cruise' team - the people at mission control who have been monitoring and helping along the spacecraft's journey to Mars over the past six-and-a-half months, is officially handing things over to the landing team! Chills. "You all should sleep in on Sunday, you guys have earned it," says the team leader. Indeed.
3:18 pm: Did you know that Perseverance has some special experimental cargo strapped to its belly? Well, if you're as massive a nerd as we are, you probably did, but we'll rehash that anyway: its name is Ingenuity, and it's a helicopter. The lovely name comes courtesy of high school student Vaneeza Rupani of Northport, Alabama, who originally submitted the name for the rover to NASA's "Name the Rover" essay contest.
"The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration," Rupani wrote. "Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things."
Perseverance's own name comes from Alexander Mather, who won said essay contest.
3:24 pm: JPL chief engineer Rob Manning has now joined the live stream for a quick update. It's jitter central over there, and we're starting to feel tense as well, the closer we're getting to the harrowing entry, descent, and landing (EDL for short) process for Perseverance.
They're eating peanuts for good luck over there - a little differently this year because of COVID-19, but you can't have a landing without peanuts.
3:32 pm: While experts on the NASA stream discuss what might go wrong and lead to "mission over", let's have a look at this adorable meme come to life, sitting in mission control.
This is a one-shot thing. Perseverance has never landed anywhere, because you simply can't have a test landing for this kind of mission. Every single component on the craft has to do its job perfectly for this to go off without a hitch.
3:35 pm: Okay, okay, okay. Cruise stage separation is coming up in a couple of minutes!
"The rover's completely in charge," says Rob Manning. "It's doing all the things we've taught it to do."
3:37 pm: The vehicle is still alive, the team is receiving 'heartbeat tones'. Good.
3:39 pm: Cruise stage separation confirmed by the spacecraft! Now what? The entry capsule is going to smash into the Martian atmosphere in about nine minutes. You can spend those last moments before the seven minutes of terror by reading about the EDL right here.
3:41 pm: The vehicle is warming up its thrusters.
3:42 pm: Six minutes from 'entry interface'. What does that mean? Getting to the top of Mars's atmosphere. From there on, things will happen VERY QUICKLY. Take some deep breaths, you're gonna need them.
3:44 pm: By the way, there's actually a time delay between Earth and Mars due to how far it is. But what we're talking about here are real time updates. Just so we're clear.
We're about two minutes from TOUCHING THE MARTIAN ATMOSPHERE— Prof. Paul Byrne (@ThePlanetaryGuy) February 18, 2021
(these times are in *real time*, and *not* the 11-minute-light-delay times from Mars)#CountdownToMars
3:47 pm: Sixty seconds to entry interface!
3:48 pm: Confirmation of entry interface!!!
3:49 pm: Speed: 5082 km/second, altitude: 67 kilometres.
3:51 pm: Someone at mission control just whispered "yes, yes, yes". Meanwhile, Swati Mohan is calmly giving us updates on the speed, altitude, and telemetry of Perseverance's entry capsule. So. Calm. We're not calm at all.
3:53 pm: Good news! The parachute deployed, the entry capsule is now at subsonic speeds, and the heat shield has separated. We have radar lock on the ground!
3:54 pm: Altitude of 2.4 kilometres.
3:54 pm: Intermittent claps at mission control.
3:55 pm: Everything is going as expected, Perseverance is 20 metres from the Martian surface.
3:55 pm: TOUCHDOWN CONFIRMED! PERSEVERANCE IS SAFELY ON THE SURFACE OF MARS. Whoops, claps, and unbridled joy at mission control, along with excited gasps of relief.
3:58 pm: Perseverance is ALIVE on the surface of Mars. And we're already getting the first image!
4:00 pm: The team at mission control are congratulating each other on a job well done. So much joy in one room! Even though in these pandemic conditions everyone has to stay distanced and masked, so no celebratory hugs.
We're getting you those first pics from the surface right now.
"NASA works. NASA works," Rob Manning just now. "We need to work together."
4:08 pm: Alright, so... now what? The scientific mission can truly begin! The landing team will be handing things over to the surface mission team, who will check over key science instruments and general health of the rover, with communications relayed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
4:11 pm: "They have earned it, let me tell you. They have worked for years and years on this mission, and I want to thank not only the team, but all of JPL. A lot of folks had to pitch in," says JPL director Mike Watkins.
"In one sense, the seven minutes of terror are very exciting, but on the other hand, the mission is just starting! Everyone can take a deep breath and a sigh of relief."
4:15 pm: Well, that's all from our live blog today, folks. We're not gonna lie, a few tears were shed over here at ScienceAlert when we had confirmation of touchdown.
We can't wait to hear about all the amazing things Perseverance will discover on its journey. You bet we will be reporting on those every step of the way.