NASA rover streaks toward a landing on Mars

by Jeremy

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A NASA rover streaked toward a landing on Mars on Thursday in the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on the red planet.

Ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, settled in nervously for the descent of Perseverance to the surface of Mars, long a deathtrap for incoming spacecraft. It takes a nail-biting 11 1/2 minutes for a signal that would confirm success to reach Earth.

The landing of the six-wheeled vehicle would mark 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.

All three missions lifted off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars, traveling some 300 million miles in nearly seven months. Perseverance, the biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, stood to become the ninth spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, all of them from the U.S., beginning in the 1970s.

The car-size, plutonium-powered rover was aiming for NASA’s smallest and trickiest target yet: a 5–by-4-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs, and fields of rock. Scientists believe that if life ever flourished on Mars, it would have happened 3 billion to 4 billion years ago when water still flowed on the planet. Percy, as it is nicknamed, was designed to drill down with its 7-foot (2-meter) arm and collect rock samples that might hold signs of ancient, microscopic life. The plan called for three to four dozen chalk-size pieces to be sealed in tubes and set aside on Mars to be retrieved by a fetch rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship to get them back to Earth as early as 2031.

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