The Mars 2020 rover, carrying on board a first-of-its-kind drone developed by Simi Valley-based AeroVironment, touched down in the Jezero Crater on Feb. 18.
The rover was confirmed to have landed safely at 12:56 p.m. Pacific Time, after what’s known as the “seven minutes of terror,” a delay in signal between the Red Planet and Earth. Named Perseverance, the rover is equipped with a drill to collect core soil samples that will be sent back to Earth by future missions to investigate the possibility of ancient life on Mars.
The mission is set to last one Martian year, or 687 Earth days, and includes several technologies that could set the stage for future manned missions to Mars. Among them is the Mars helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, a demonstration project developed by drone manufacturer AeroVironment to test autonomous flight capabilities in the thin Martian atmosphere.
Other technologies aboard the rover include systems for creating oxygen, analyzing weather and other environmental conditions and detecting subsurface resources like water.
“It’s the first step in Mars sample return. It’s not only doing it’s own mission, it’s setting us up for a series of missions and to bring those samples back,” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Michael Watkins said during the agency’s livestream of the landing. “A lot of the effort to develop the rover was specifically designed for that sampling and caching system, and it’s one of the most complex robotics systems ever made, so having it down safely means Mars sample return continues right on course. “
The air on Mars is similar to extremely high altitudes on Earth in atmosphere, temperature and radiation levels. While it is intended to serve primarily as a proof-of-concept, Ingenuity is equipped with cameras and instruments to measure inertia and altitude. A successful test flight could pave the way for future drones that would dramatically increase the reach of future rover projects.
Perseverance weighs a little more than one ton and is the size of a small car. Ingenuity weighs only around four pounds and is capable of flight speeds of around 22 miles per hour. With the successful landing of Perseverance, Ingenuity is slated to attempt its first takeoff in April.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated 25 minutes after it was initially posted to remove an error about where the rover was launched. It took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida in July.