NASA’s Perseverance rover has opened its robotic eyes on a tantalizing landscape on Mars – one that scientists hope will answer the question of whether a planet that once had all the ingredients to sustain life actually saw life emerge.

On Thursday afternoon at 3:55 p.m., members of the flight control team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., leaped from their consoles and gave a simultaneous cheer after the arrival of the signal that confirmed the spacecraft was resting intact on the Martian surface. It was a moment of jubilation that echoed NASA’s past successes on the red planet, but with masks and elbow bumps instead of hugs because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The landing was celebrated not only by those at mission control but by hundreds of scientists around the world who are involved in the project, including several who are based in Canada.

Mission control for the Perseverance rover erupted in celebrations after it safely touched down on Mars and transmitted its first image back to Earth. The rover will search for evidence of ancient life on the red planet and collect samples for a future mission to eventually send back to Earth. THE GLOBE AND MAIL

“I was holding my son at the time and I just started jumping up and down … everyone was very excited,” said Mariek Schmidt, a geologist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., watched the landing online with her two young children.

During the mission, Dr. Schmidt will be working with two of the rover’s science instruments, called PIXL and SHERLOC, to look for minerals that are indicative of microscopic habitats where Martian bacteria may once have sheltered.

The success marks the ninth time that the U.S. space agency has landed a spacecraft on the Martian surface in 10 attempts. No other country has yet managed to do it once, though China’s first attempt is expected later this year.

At a cost of US$2.2-billion, Perseverance is the most sophisticated vehicle ever sent to another world. Weighing in at 1,025 kilograms, it is the size of a small SUV and stands over three metres tall. It is powered by a small plutonium-fuelled thermoelectric generator that is built to last for years. Over that time, its aim will be to investigate an ancient river delta at its landing site in Jezero crater and collect rock samples that can be picked up by a follow-up mission for return to Earth.

The delta is thought to have formed about 3.7 billion years ago when water gushed into the crater, forming a deep lake. The landing site was selected from among dozens of options as one of the places where traces of past life on Mars might still be found.

Data from the rover allowed engineers to pinpoint exactly where Perseverance set down, about two kilometres to the southeast of the delta, near the border of two types of rocky surfaces.

“We’ve landed in a really great spot, actually quite amazing, from a geological perspective,” said Chris Herd, a planetary scientist at the University of Alberta who is part of the team that will assess data from the landing site to determine where the rover should look for samples.

Minutes after landing, the rover radioed back its first black and white images from two navigation cameras on the underside of the rover. The images show a flat plain with rocks in the foreground and a distant ridge on the horizon. Panoramic colour images are expected in the coming days as the rover’s cameras and other instruments are gradually activated and put through their paces.

Once it is in motion, the rover’s first weeks will be spent looking for a good place to deploy and then monitor a small helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, which will attempt the first powered flight on Mars.

“It’s going to be a true Wright brothers moment, but on another world,” said NASA project manager MiMi Aung.

After the helicopter work, the rover will embark on a full-scale exploration of Jezero crater – a trek that will require more than two years and could last far longer if the spacecraft remains functional.

As the rover manoeuvres its way around the delta, scientists will be looking for mineralogical clues that may indicate the presence of past life on Mars. But even if the rover does not find such evidence, it is possible that life existed somewhere else on the planet that has not yet been explored. The risk for scientists is not running out of places to look, but running out of funding if a lack of evidence eventually leads to a lack of enthusiasm from governments to underwrite future missions.

That is what happened in the 1970s, when NASA’s two Viking landers were unable to detect signs of biological activity in Martian soil. A follow-up mission was nixed despite the Viking program’s impressive technical and scientific successes.

That seems less likely now, partly because Perseverance is also seen as helping pave the way for a future mission to bring humans to Mars and partly because of growing evidence that Mars was once habitable, whether or not it was ever inhabited.

Dr. Schmidt said that her own thinking on the question has evolved as more data accumulate about the complex geological and chemical processes that were operating on Mars billions of years ago – processes that could conceivably have ignited the spark of life, just as they did on Earth at about the same time.

“I think it is increasingly possible that there once was life on Mars,” she said. “It’s not going to be multicellular life or anything like that, but I think it’s certainly possible that there were microbes.”

For his part, Dr. Herd said the opportunity to guide a sophisticated robot explorer through an alien terrain and then sample its geological splendours is reward enough no matter what the rover finds.

“I am just so super keen to know everything this landing site is going to tell us,” he said. “I guess I’m kind of looking at the travel brochure and thinking that I don’t know how we’re going to fit it all in, but we’re going to do our best.”

The Globe and Mail, February 18, 2021