The most sophisticated robot NASA has ever placed on Mars took its first steps, a “tremendous milestone” for the mission team.
The US space agency’s Perseverance robot activated its wheels and began its first walk on Mars.
He did not go very far: in total, he only traveled 6.5 meters.
But mission associate scientist Katie Stack Morgan stressed that it was a significant moment.
“Although the robot is still carrying out a lot of engineering checks, by the time it starts to move we can already consider ourselves to be explorers on the surface of Mars,” he told BBC News.
Two weeks have passed since the one-ton robot successfully made its dramatic descent to the red planet.
Engineers have spent this time fine-tuning the vehicle and its complex systems, including its instruments and robotic arm.
Everyone, however, was waiting for Perseverance to get going.
And it happened on Thursday. The robot moved forward, made a 150-degree turn in the same place, and backed off a bit.
“You can see the tracks we left on Mars; I think I have never been so happy to see wheel tracks,” said Anais Zarifian, an engineer at NASA’s Propulsion Laboratory and who is part of the team responsible for mobility tests. of Perseverance.
“This is a tremendous milestone for the mission and the mobility team. We have driven on Earth but doing it on Mars… is the ultimate goal, so many people have worked for this moment for years.”
Perseverance was placed near a crater called Jezero, to search for evidence of past life.
That end will mean traveling about 15 km during the next Martian year (about two Earth years).
Scientists want to find a number of rock formations in the crater that could contain records of ancient biological activity.
Among them is what in satellite images appears to be a delta, believed to have formed the river that emptied into the great lagoon.
The mission team is considering one of two routes to the delta , one of which would give scientists a sneak peek by taking the robot past an isolated remnant.
“This (mound) is about a mile and a half from the robot,” Stack Morgan noted.
“On this ledge, those tough rock layers were likely deposited by rivers flowing into ancient Jezero Lake, and the team’s scientists are hard at work trying to understand the meaning and origin of rocks like that.”
One of Perseverance’s immediate purposes is to experiment with his helicopter.
The rover will spend the next few weeks going from its current location to an area of suitable terrain, where the 2kg device called Ingenuity can be safely deposited on Martian terrain.
Right now, the helicopter is under Perseverance’s “belly”.
“We are still working to find out the possible flight zones,” said Robert Hogg, the mission’s deputy director.
“We are taking navigation and stereo images to be able to analyze the terrain. And the team has also been investigating orbital images to identify possible flight zones. In short, we still have the goal of having it ready by spring,” he told reporters.
Perseverance is the fastest robot NASA has ever placed on Mars. It has not so much to do with the speed at which its wheels can go (around 5 cm / s), but with its advances in autonomous navigation.
The robot takes pictures to assess the path. Previous vehicles had to stop while these images were being processed on board. Perseverance can do it on the go.
“Perseverance can walk and chew gum at the same time,” joked Anais Zarifian.
NASA announced Friday that it had decided to name the enclave where Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater after celebrated American science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler.
That same honor was bestowed on science fiction author Ray Bradbury in 2012, whose name was used to name the landing site of NASA’s previous robot, Curiosity.