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NASA's Perseverance rover nails historic Mars landing, sends first images of Jezero Crater

Touchdown confirmed! NASA lands its most ambitious, advanced robotic rover in an ancient lake bed on the red planet.

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This landing animation from NASA depicts its next-gen Mars rover touching down in Jezero Crater.

NASA

Perseverance, NASA's most ambitious interplanetary rover yet, was slowly lowered to the surface of an ancient lakebed on Mars on Thursday, Feb. 18. After the tense "seven minutes of terror," the 1-ton, six-wheeled mobile science laboratory landed softly on Mars at exactly 12:55 p.m. PT. It was NASA engineer Swati Mohan who provided the final, critical words: "Touchdown confirmed."

Hoots and hollers rang throughout NASA's Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, at the moment of touchdown, but this wasn't like past Mars landings. Jubilant scientists and engineers jumped from chairs, but social distancing requirements prevented them (mostly) from their usual hearty embraces. 

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"What a credit to the team," said Steve Jurczyk, NASA's acting administrator. "Everything went pretty much according to plan."

In the lead-up to touchdown, astronomers expressed a mix of excitement and nervousness. "The one thing that's key to having a successful mission is a safe landing," said Glen Nagle, outreach manager for Australia's Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, which is part of NASA's network of dishes communicating with robots across the solar system. "Neither we nor the mission scientists have any real control over any of that." 

The entry, descent and landing (EDL) procedure is dubbed "the seven minutes of terror" -- and for good reason, as a lot of things can go wrong. But Perseverance hit the atmosphere moving at around 12,000 miles per hour and slowed down to a complete stop within 420 seconds, a process NASA practically has down to an art now. NASA last landed a rover on Mars in August 2012, when Perseverance's cousin Curiosity touched down to study carbon-based molecules

The mission is scheduled to last for one Mars year, equivalent to about 687 Earth days. But if history is anything to go by, NASA will be able to extend that further as it has with previous rover missions, like Curiosity.

In the coming days, we can expect to see and hear how the landing occurred. NASA's InSight lander listened in from its home position of Elysium Planitia, near the equator of Mars, as Perseverance slammed into the tenuous atmosphere. And the rover itself is outfitted with a suite of cameras and a microphone to catch all the fine details. "This is a new sensory way to engage with the red planet," said Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist at Flinders University in Australia. "We can close our eyes, imagine ourselves standing on the surface of Mars and listen to the sounds of Martian nature."

Celebrations in the NASA control room at JPL Mission Control. 

NASA

The first images from the rover were beamed back to mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory just moments after touchdown. They were taken by the Left and Right Hazard Avoidance Cameras, two front-facing cameras onboard the rover. They're a little dusty and only image in one band, but they're marvellous. A handful of high-resolution images followed with one particular piece capturing the rover's final moments before landing the pick of the bunch.

Editor's note: Further video footage from the EDL phase is expected to be revealed on Monday, Feb. 22. You can follow along here.

Next, the science begins. Perseverance's mission is set to begin a new era of discovery on the red planet. Its landing spot in Jezero Crater is believed to have once been covered with water. Where there's water, there's potential for life to arise. "These are the kinds of conditions where early microbial life kicked off on Earth," says Brendan Burns, an astrobiologist at the University of New South Wales.

"Percy," as the rover has affectionately been dubbed, will hopefully discover signs of past life in the crater. 

"This mission builds on years of exploration that showed Mars was once far more habitable than it is today, but Perseverance can show whether it was inhabited," says Alan Duffy, a professor in astrophysics at Swinburne University in Australia.

At a post-touchdown briefing, Ken Farley said the landing location is "a great place to be" because it's right on the border of two "geologic units" -- basically, it's smack in the middle of different types of rock. Sampling this area, Perseverance should be able to learn a lot more about the geologic history of Jezero.

And Perseverance's goals extend a long, long way into the future, with two key components of the mission ready to set the stage for the next missions across the cosmos.

The first is a small helicopter, tucked within the rover's belly, known as Ingenuity. It's only a test drone, but it could become the first craft to be flown on another planet. Success in Mars' thin atmosphere will pave the way for missions to other planets and moons. "If Ingenuity proves that we can successfully pilot aircraft on other planets, it will hugely expand the options for exploration in the future," says Jonti Horner, an astrophysicist at the University of Southern Queensland. Horner points to NASA's Dragonfly, which is expected to take to the skies of Saturn's moon Titan in 2034. 

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NASA's Perseverance rover sent back its first look at the Mars surface on Feb. 18. 2021.

NASA

Back on Mars, Perseverance is expected to take soil samples it can cache and leave on the surface for a future Mars mission to collect. This sample return would be the first of its kind from the red planet. "That's like the coolest thing ever," says Bonnie Teece, a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology. "There's still things we can't do from far away, and questions we can only answer with samples from Mars here on Earth." A Russia-led sample return mission was attempted in 2011, but the spacecraft never made it to orbit.

Perseverance launched on July 30, 2020, beneath the early morning sun of the Florida coast aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V. It spent the last seven months traveling from Earth to Mars, shielded from the harsh environment of space within the Mars 2020 spacecraft. 

Follow CNET's 2021 Space Calendar to stay up to date with all the latest space news this year. You can even add it to your own Google Calendar.    

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Updated Feb. 22: Adds links to Perseverance's first images