NASA’s newest Mars rover hit the dusty red road this week, putting 6.5 metres on the odometer in its first test drive.
The Perseverance rover ventured from its landing position Thursday, two weeks after landing on the Red Planet to seek signs of past life.
The roundabout, back-and-forth drive lasted 33 minutes and went so well that more driving was on tap Friday and Saturday for the six-wheeled rover.
“This is really the start of our journey here,” said Rich Rieber, the NASA engineer who plotted the route. “This is going to be like the Odyssey, adventures along the way, hopefully no Cyclops, and I’m sure there will be stories aplenty written about it.”
In its first drive, Perseverance went forward four metres, took a 150-degree left turn, then backed up 2.5 metres. During a news conference Friday, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., shared photos of its tracks over and around small rocks.
News from Mars: <a href=”https://twitter.com/NASAPersevere?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@NASAPersevere</a>’s team has tested its robotic arm, checked science instruments, & taken the rover on its first drive. Mission scientists have named its touchdown site “Octavia E. Butler Landing,” in honor of the late science fiction author: <a href=”https://t.co/jcyr3ZZDGz”>https://t.co/jcyr3ZZDGz</a> <a href=”https://t.co/5xsQnxdjE3″>pic.twitter.com/5xsQnxdjE3</a>
“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see wheel tracks and I’ve seen a lot of them,” said engineer Anais Zarafian. “This is just a huge milestone for the mission.”
Flight controllers are still checking all of Perseverance’s systems. So far, everything is looking good. The rover’s two-metre robot arm, for instance, flexed its muscles for the first time Tuesday.
Before the car-size rover can head for an ancient river delta to collect rocks for eventual return to Earth, it must drop its so-called protective “belly pan” and release an experimental helicopter named Ingenuity.
As it turns out, Perseverance landed right on the edge of a potential helicopter landing strip — a nice, flat spot, according to Rieber. So the plan is to drive out of this landing strip, ditch the pan, then return for Ingenuity’s highly anticipated test flight. All this should be accomplished by late spring.
WATCH | NASA videos show Perseverance landing on Mars:
Scientists are debating whether to take the smoother route to get to the nearby delta or a possibly tougher way with intriguing remnants from that once-watery time three billion to four billion years ago.
Perseverance — NASA’s biggest and most elaborate rover yet — became the ninth U.S. spacecraft to successfully land on Mars on Feb. 18. China hopes to land its smaller rover — currently orbiting the red planet — in another few months.
NASA scientists, meanwhile, announced Friday that they’ve named Perseverance’s touchdown site in honour of the late science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, who grew up next door to JPL in Pasadena. She was one of the first Black people to receive mainstream attention for science fiction. Her works included Bloodchild and Other Stories and Parable of the Sower.